Mitt Romney styled himself as a staunch defender of Social Security in Wednesday’s debate, taking a huge bet that Republican seniors will go for a more moderate position than Rick Perry on entitlements.
Perry repeated his oft-quoted line that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and “monstrous lie” from the podium and shrugged off criticism from Karl Rove that his language was politically “toxic.”
“You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks,” he said of his former political guru. “So I’m not responsible for his remarks.”
But Romney pressed the issue, launching into an impassioned defense of Social Security’s benefits to seniors paired with an equally harsh condemnation of Perry’s rhetoric in speeches and his book Fed Up!
“In the book Fed Up! you say by any measure Social Security is a failure,” he said. “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it. Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.”
He added that Social Security, despite its roots in FDR’s New Deal Democrats, had long ago become sacrosanct for the GOP as well.
“We have always had, at the heart of our party, a recognition that we want to care for those in need, and our seniors have the need of Social Security,” he said. “I’ll make sure we keep the program and make it financially secure. We save Social Security and under no circumstances, would i ever say by any measure it’s a failure. Its working for millions of Americans, and I’ll keep it working for millions of Americans and we’ve got to do that as a party.”
Perry defended his “provocative language” in a response, saying, “you cannot keep the status quo in place and not call anything other than a Ponzi scheme.”
The exchange marks a crucial moment in the campaign: this is the first time Romney has deliberately staked out a centrist position in order to attack Perry explicitly from the left. This is a dynamic that’s going to have a huge impact on the character of the race from this point on, assuming Romney holds his ground.
Correction: An earlier version attributed a quote on Chile’s Social Security model to Rick Perry. It was Herman Cain who made the remark.
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.