Calling Social Security 'Ponzi scheme' not a good campaign plan

By Dan K. Thomasson

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 13 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Nov. 8, 2010, file photo, Republican presidential hopeful, Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks about his new book entitled "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington" during a speech at the Heritage Foundation, in Washington. Perry has been asked to defend comments from his book, in which he called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme."

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — The other day in an office waiting room, two young women were discussing the Republican presidential situation. One said she definitely was for Mitt Romney but the other said she had not decided yet, indicating she might tilt toward Rick Perry.

The one thing they did agree on was the belief that they would never see any benefit from the money they were paying into Social Security. When I asked how many others in the mid-20s age range felt the same way, they said most if not all of their friends.

I replied that I had felt the same way when I was their age but that the chances are better than good that they will live long enough to recapture their contributions although they might have to wait longer to receive their benefits. I explained that the retirement age of 65 established by Bismarck was no longer valid and change seemed inevitable in the not too distant future.

What I thought I was hearing from both women was an indication that in some way Texas Gov. Perry's recent startling indictment of Social Security was resonating with a large number of their contemporaries, those who would just as soon have the money now as later. That lack of patience for years still miles ahead is a malady of youth. The here and now is what matters.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's political inclination, that point of view does not translate into many votes. When I suggested that the trouble was that their age group had the worst percentage of turnout at the polls of any in the electorate, both young women acknowledged the fact. "We never have time," one said, "and we too often think why bother."

I replied that wasn't the case with the upper age ranges, adding that in 55 years of covering politics I have never heard a front running presidential candidate of either party indict Social Security the way Perry did recently. To call the Old Age Survivors Insurance program a "Ponzi scheme" and a major lie to our children seemed not only foolhardy but also politically self-destructive.

There are more than 40 million Americans out there who not only can be expected to take umbrage at that statement but consider it a threat to a program a huge number of them rely on. They generally react in a manner no serious candidate can afford. They head for the polls in overwhelming numbers. Unlike your group, I told the women, they do have the time to vote and they exercise the privilege in astounding numbers. And they never forget so taking it back later is worthless.

Their panic also spreads to their immediate offspring who may even be approaching the benefit age or have to supplement their parents' incomes should Social Security disappear. And then there are those who are disabled and must depend on the program, like it or not.

I recalled that Ronald Reagan once proposed a minor adjustment to Social Security only to meet a storm of protest. He summoned his budget director to the Oval Office and politely told him never to mention the subject again in his presence. George W. Bush expended huge amounts of his party's political capital on his failed proposal to privatize some of the program.

If history is any use in guiding political strategy, Romney is absolutely correct when he says that to choose a presidential nominee whose view of Social Security and any number of other issues is as radically out of the mainstream as Perry's would spell disaster not only for the Texas governor but also for the Republicans generally. Democrats must dream of a Perry nomination.

Should we reform Social Security to meet a different demographic than the 1930s when it was adopted? Certainly we should but gingerly, emphasizing obvious needed changes like elevating retirement ages and perhaps establishing a means test to keep the fund solvent for the likes of these young women.

Obviously we must if the nation is also to remain solvent. But advocating its elimination or leading voters to believe that with intemperate language seems to me to be political suicide.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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