Rick Perry’s campaign is finally walking things back a bit on Social Security under concentrated fire from Mitt Romney, claiming in a press release that Perry never said in his book that the program was unconstitutional. But their explanation isn’t too convincing, especially given that Perry has repeated the claim in interviews as well.
Perry was pressed on his Social Security statements in the debate and, while he did not address his thoughts on the program’s constitutionality, he denied that he wanted to dissolve the program and turn it over to the states. Romney, however, went right at the constitutional issue and accused Perry of flip flopping.
“It is different than what the governor put in his book six months and what you said in interviews following the book,” Romney said. “There’s a Rick Perry out there that is saying that almost, quote, it says, that the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business. That it is unconstitutional. Unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
Now Perry’s campaign says that Perry doesn’t believe Social Security is unconstitutional. They claim the confusion stems from a passage in Perry’s book Fed Up! in which he wrote: “And there stands a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal, in stark contrast to the mythical notion of salvation to which it has wrongly been attached for too long, all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.”
According to the campaign’s press release,, “Gov. Perry never said that Social Security was unconstitutional” in that passage and believes the program is “important” for seniors. “Gov. Perry has stated the issue is not with the intent behind social security or the benefits those checks have provided, but that the system is broken,” the e-mail continues. “There is no money set aside for a single American, and that our leaders owe it to the American people to acknowledge this.The point in the book is simply that this is what happens when you empower a far-away central government.”
If Perry’s to be believed now, his book’s take is that the New Deal was great, if only they had the foresight at the time to configure Social Security so that it didn’t need some minor fixes seven decades later to fix a modest medium-term shortfall after lifting three plus generations of seniors out of poverty. Since they didn’t, it’s a “failure,” as his book puts it, and “what happens when you empower a far-away central government.” But the tone of the book is worlds away from the newer, gentler Perry line. The passage in question clearly comes in the context of condemning Social Security’s enactment in the first place, which Perry says was the prime example of the New Deal “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government.” He also strongly suggests the legislation was sold under the pretext of a phony crisis and wasn’t needed in the first place. Give it a look:
The vaunted New Deal did not bring the country out of the Great Depression. Its numerous programs never died, and like a bad disease, they have spread. Certain of these programs massively altered the relationship between Americans and their government with respect to critical aspect of our lives, violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government.
By far the best example of this is Social Security. A New Deal invention, it was clearly intended to be a permanent fixture of the entitlement state FDR was constructing. Private pensions were largely solvent and performing, despite the Depression. Even though the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, the fact that no retirement benefits would be paid until 1942 contradicts any notion that it was directed at an emergency. Moreover, retirement benefits were not payable until age 62, when the life expectancy at the time was only 60. And FDR beat back a popular proposal for a private pension.
By the way, Perry is wrong that Social Security wasn’t addressing an actual problem as well: research shows the program played a major role in a drastic reduction of elderly poverty rates since its enactment.
The book is also only one example of Perry suggesting Social Security was unconstitutional and never should have been passed. In Perry’s Daily Beast/Newsweek interview last year, for example, he was asked point blank about the constitutional basis for Social Security and Medicare. His answer:
PERRY: I don’t think our founding fathers when they were putting the term “general welfare” in there were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care. What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address.
Thinkprogress asked him directly about this as well in Iowa, and he said he has not backed away from his book:
TP: But should states-rights supporters be worried that, as governor you said that Social Security is not something that falls in the purview of the federal government, but in your campaign, have backed off that?
PERRY: I haven’t backed off anything in my book. Read the book again, get it right. Next question.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.