Republican front-runner Rick Perry backed up from his incendiary comments about the origins of Social Security. His closest rival, Mitt Romney, said he would nullify President Obama’s health care law that resembles the one he passed in Massachusetts. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a firebrand while in Congress, said President Obama “scares” Americans “every single day.”
It was a night for clarifications and amplifications for Republicans seeking the White House in an era of economic uncertainty and profound disillusionment with virtually all large national institutions. In ways large and small, each of the eight assembled GOP aspirants for the White House denounced what they suggested were the heavy-handed and overbearing ways of Beltway bureaucrats empowered and emboldened by Obama and his allies.
Perry, the current Texas governor, walked onto the CNN stage in Tampa, site of the Republican convention in August 2012, with a salute and promptly repeated his announcement-speech promise to make Washington “as inconsequential in your life as I can.” In a debate co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express, that amounted to political catnip.
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But Perry neither owned the stage nor dominated it. Romney and others did not hesitate to challenge the Texas governor on an array of issues, Romney striking first by citing Perry’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and his suggestion that the popular retirement program is a violation of the Constitution and an affront to states' rights. Their spirited exchange, in a battleground state where seniors are a key voting bloc, was telling.
Social Security has been a solid program for “70 years” and calling the term “Ponzi scheme” is “over the top and unnecessary and hurtful to many people,” Romney said, adding that Perry’s view that Social Security could or should be given back to the states was not only wrong-headed but politically injurious to the Republican Party. In a provocative challenge, Romney added: “The real question is does Gov. Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that’s it’s unconstitutional, and it should be returned to the states, or is he going retreat from that view?”
Perry was undaunted. “If what you’re trying to say is that back in the '30s and '40s the federal government made all the right decisions, I disagree with you,” the Texan said to applause. “It’s time for us to get back to the Constitution. And a program that’s been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we’re not going to take that program away. But for people to stand up and support what they did in the '30s or what they are doing in the 2010s is not appropriate for America.”
Romney pressed. “Do you still believe Social Security should be ended as a federal program -- as you did six months ago when your book came out -- and returned to the states? Or do you want to retreat from that?”
“I think we should have a conversation,” Perry responded.
“We’re having that right now, Governor," retorted Romney. "We’re running for president.”
The governor of the state that houses the Alamo wasn't surrendering. “The issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or for retirees? We did it in the state of Texas back in the 1980s. I think those kinds of thoughtful conversations with America, rather than trying to scare seniors like you’re doing -- it’s time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program.”
Romney wouldn’t let it go.
“Governor, the term Ponzi scheme is what scared seniors,” Romney said. “Suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program… is likewise frightening. That’s your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program and that we should change the way we are funding it.”
Perry had dug up his own telling quote from a Romney book. “You called it criminal. You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That’s in your book.”
Romney may have pinned Perry’s ears back and highlighted a general election issue some Republicans fear could haunt Perry, but the Texas governor’s ready-fire retort won the tea party crowd and deprived Romney of an early debate equalizer.
In fact, if there was one recurrent theme in this second GOP presidential debate of September, it was that other challengers, trailing badly in the polls, were unafraid of Perry’s apparent bulldozer popularity. Each candidate had a moment in the klieg lights.
Romney, in addition to questioning Perry’s stand on Social Security, questioned how much credit Perry should get for his state's economic success, saying the governor was “dealt four aces” in Texas: no state income tax, vast energy reserves, a GOP Legislature and GOP-led Supreme Court.
When asked if Perry deserved all the credit for Texas’ solid job creation record, Rep. Ron Paul said “not quite.” The Texas congressman complained that his taxes under Perry had “doubled” and noted that 170,000 new jobs in Texas were with the state government.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has fallen steadily in the polls since Perry entered the race, emphasized her role in Washington as an opponent of the administration, saying she alone in the GOP field was committed to legislatively nullifying Obama’s health care law. At one point, Perry said he would nix it with an executive order.
Bachmann said that wasn’t tough enough, and also faulted Perry for signing an executive order as governor requiring pre-teen girls in Texas to receive an inoculation for the human papillomavirus, transmitted through sexual contact, which can lead to cervical cancer. “There was a big drug company that made millions of dollars,” Bachmann said, referring to the profits linked to the inoculation requirement, calling Perry’s decision “flat out wrong.”
Looking stung, Perry identified the drug company involved.
“It was Merck,” Perry said. “The contribution was $5,000." He noted that he has raised over $30 million in political contributions. "If you think I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”
Bachmann shot back. “I’m offended by the little girls and mothers who didn’t have a choice.”
Perry said families had an opportunity to “opt out” of the vaccine program but admitted the decision was a mistake and that he should have consulted the Legislature rather than use an executive order. Both Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum called the use of the executive order a grotesque government overreach. “This is big government run amok,” Santorum said.
Gingrich said he could find $70 billion to $120 billion in Medicare and Medicaid fraud and would make his watchword “stop paying the crooks” when it came to entitlement spending. He also said, to deep applause, that it was foolhardy for Romney, Perry, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to compete over who created more jobs. “The American people create jobs, not government,” Gingrich said.
Former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain said he was the only non-politician in the race who could see issues clearly and deliver unconventional change to Washington. He pitched his 9-9-9 tax plan, a new method that would impose a 9 percent income tax, 9 percent corporate tax, and 9 percent national sales tax.
Huntsman, who like Romney is a Mormon, offered the most interesting (or bizarre) metaphors.
“To hear these two go at it over here it is almost incredible,” Huntsman said, referring to the Perry-Romney spat on Social Security. “You’ve got Governor Romney who called it a fraud in his book No Apology -- I don’t know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not. And then you’ve got Governor Perry calling it a Ponzi scheme. All I know is that we are frightening the American people, who just want solutions. And this party isn’t going to win in 2012 unless we get our act together and fix the problem.”
Later, Huntsman said America had a “heroin-like” addiction to foreign oil, a remark made in the context of expanding U.S. exploration for oil and natural gas – something everyone on the stage supported. That made two heroin-laced references from Huntsman in the first hour. Cobain, the former front man of the late-1980s and early-1990s rock group Nirvana, battled a heroin addiction before committing suicide in 1994.
Perhaps Huntsman can account for the Cobain references. But he, like most of the others on stage, seems destined for the basement of the GOP presidential race, while Perry fights to hold his lead, Romney fights to close the distance, and Bachmann, a once-top contender who has fallen off the pace since Perry’s arrival, struggles to regain relevance.