Perry’s Entitlement Problem

Rick Perry kicks off his campaign tomorrow, but is he electable? In an interview last fall, the Texas governor advocated dismantling Medicare and Social Security. By Andrew Romano

08.12.11 5:03 AM ET

For months, Republicans have complained about their choices in the 2012 presidential race. Mitt Romney seems unprincipled, they’ve said. Michele Bachmann is too flimsy. Tim Pawlenty looks fine on paper, but in person, not so much. And Newt Gingrich is just plain erratic.

But now disaffected conservatives think they’ve found their man. His name? Rick Perry. This weekend, while most of the field focuses on the Ames, Iowa straw poll, the three-plus-term Texas governor will launch his bid for the GOP nomination at the Red State conference in Charleston, S.C.—and significant swaths of the Republican base will heave a collective sigh of relief. As The New Republic’s Ed Kilgore puts it, “Rick Perry seems to perfectly embody the Republican zeitgeist of the moment, appealing equally to the GOP’s Tea Party, Christian Right, and establishment factions while exemplifying the militant anti-Obama attitude that holds it all together.”

The only problem? Perry has almost no chance—unlike, say, Romney, Pawlenty, or even Jon Huntsman—of beating Barack Obama in the general election.

This isn’t because he “sounds too much like” George W. Bush, as almost every pundit in Washington has been repeating, ad nauseam, since Perry first hinted in May that he might run. And it’s not because he’s “too religious”, either.

The real reason Perry will find it nearly impossible to win a general election is, believe it or not, substance. He holds three positions that vast majorities of the American public, Republicans included, will simply refuse to stomach—that America would be better off without the federal programs known as Social Security and Medicare, and that the government should do nothing (zero, zilch, nada) to counteract an economic crash.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding Perry’s candidacy, few people have asked yet what the Texas governor actually believes—and what sort of president he would be. Fortunately, I spent the better part of an hour talking to Perry about his political philosophy and policy prescriptions back in the fall, right before he released Fed Up!, his first policy book. At the time, Newsweek chose to print only a short excerpt from our interview; few readers knew who Perry was, or cared. But now that he’s running for president, it makes sense to publish a longer version of the conversation, which reveals a lot about Perry’s politics. (For the full transcript, click through.)

In the interview, Perry hints that he would do more to limit the power of the federal government—or at least attempt to do more—than any president since Calvin Coolidge. His argument is basically that we should dismantle most of the last 75 years of national policy and relinquish even Washington’s least controversial responsibilities to the states.

Perry believes, for example, that the national Social Security system, which he calls a “failure” that “we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now,” should be scrapped and that each state should be allowed to create, or not create, its own pension system. “I would suggest a legitimate conversation about let[ting] the states keep their money and implement the programs,” he says.

Perry also includes Medicare in his list of programs “the states could substantially better operate,” suggesting that each governor should be “given the freedom from the federal government to come up with his own innovative ways [of] working with his legislature to deliver his own health-care innovations to his citizens.”

And Perry thinks TARP was a total mistake—along with all subsequent efforts to backstop or stimulate the economy. Instead, he prefers an entirely laissez-faire approach to job-destroying financial crises. "I think you allow the market to work its way through it," he says. "I don’t understand why the TARP bill exists. Let the processes find their way."

No Social Security. No federal health-care program for seniors. And no Beltway involvement—at all—during a crash or recession. These views will undoubtedly endear Perry to the Tea Party faithful. But they would alienate nearly every other voter in the country.

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This isn’t opinion—it’s demonstrable, quantifiable fact. In April, Gallup asked Americans to describe their preferred approach to Medicare reform. Sixty-one percent of adults said we should “not try to control costs” at all or make only “minor changes.” Another 18 percent said they would accept “major changes.” But only 13 percent were willing to countenance Perry’s plan: a “complete overhaul.” Underscoring the impossibility of Perry’s position is the fact that the most popular response among Republicans was not that Medicare needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, as Perry believes. It’s that we shouldn’t try and control costs at all. Other polls (PDF) have found up to 81 percent of Americans unwilling to tolerate “significant cuts” to Medicare. One imagines that defederalizing the program would be even less popular.

Social Security is a similar story. In national polls, opposition to cutting the national pension plan ranges from around 64 percent to about 78 percent (PDF).  And Social Security cuts are especially unpopular in crucial swing states, with a poll published in June showing “that 74 percent of likely 2012 voters in Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, and Colorado say they would oppose cutting Social Security benefits in order to reduce the federal budget deficit,” and another, earlier survey pegging that number at an eye-popping 80 percent in Ohio. If you lose between 70 and 80 percent of voters in Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Colorado, and Ohio, there’s no way you can win the presidency.

Finally, while the stimulus has become pretty unpopular in retrospect—it didn’t do nearly as much good as President Obama predicted it would—voters would be even less fond of a world without it. The Congressional Budget Office has reported, for instance, that the stimulus "[i]ncreased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million"; TARP, which wound up costing only $19 billion, arrested a financial free fall that may have led to another Great Depression; and the auto bailout likely saved the car industry and tens of thousands of Midwestern jobs. None of which would’ve happened if Perry were president at the time, meaning that people would probably be even more peeved than they are now.

Again, there are plenty of Tea Party Republicans who will be thrilled by Perry’s agenda. There may even be enough to propel the Texas governor to the GOP nomination. But if Republicans really want to defeat Barack Obama next November, they should be wary about topping the ticket with someone whose views on the federal government are further to the right than even Ronald Reagan's—by a country mile. People like to rail against bureaucracy, but they also expect Washington to help them out in a few fundamental ways. Reforming Social Security and Medicare is fair game; no reasonable observer would disagree. But dismantling them altogether? Somewhere, Obama’s aides are already dreaming up the attack ads.