The Once (and Future?) Third Rail: The Ticker

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By Francis Wilkinson

If the boundaries that defined U.S. politics for the past half century are still in place, Rick Perry lost the presidential race last night. Having been reminded (subtext: accused) by debate moderator John Harris of his previous attacks on Social Security, the Texas governor had a chance to retreat from his claim that the creation of Social Security had "violently tossed aside respect for states' rights." Instead, Perry repeated a different charge -- that Social Security, the fruits of which are currently enjoyed by no fewer than 52 million Americans, is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "lie."

A decade ago, it's highly unlikely that any political pundit in the U.S. would have wasted time contemplating Perry's political future after such a remark, simply because he wouldn't have had one. The equally revered and feared "third rail" of American politics was the structure of income and health care supports that lifted millions of elderly citizens out of poverty (and carried quite a few million of them straight into the voting booth).

To grasp just how far U.S. politics have changed in the past few years, and how deeply skeptical some Americans have become of public finance and institutions, all we really need to know is this: The guy who was trashing Social Security on the stage last night is the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination today.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)


-0- Sep/08/2011 19:56 GMT