Rick Perry tiptoes away from Social Security slams

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks in Bedford, N.H., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. AP Photo/Cheryl Senter

Rick Perry in NH
AP Photo/Cheryl Senter

Updated 3:36 p.m. Eastern Time

In his book "Fed Up!" Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has some harsh words for the "crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal" known as Social Security.

In the book, released in November 2010, Perry criticizes the program as emblematic of the "entitlement state" created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt which meant "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government."

He casts Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, which he describes as "fraudulent systems designed to take in a lot of money at the front and pay out none in the end." On Fox News Sunday last November, Perry said the program is so bad that it would "even [make] Mr. Ponzi feel pretty bad if he were still alive." In an interview with Newsweek around the same time, he said America would be better off without Medicare and Social Security and suggested the programs are unconstitutional.

"I don't think our founding fathers when they were putting the term 'general welfare' in [the Constitution] were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care," he told Newsweek. "What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address. Not the federal government. I stand very clear on that. From my perspective, the states could substantially better operate those programs if that's what those states decided to do." In "Fed Up," Perry called the program a "bad disease" created "at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government."

As Slate points out, Perry added in his book that "if you say Social Security is a failure, as I have just done, you will inherit the wind of political scorn." But he says politicians should have the "courage" to speak out to keep the country off "the fast track to financial ruin."

Perry was right that outspoken criticism of Social Security can be a headache for a politician. Last Thursday, he was confronted by protesters who said he called the program unconstitutional; he responded, ABC News reported, by putting "a generous piece of popover in his mouth" and saying, "I've got a big mouthful." Outside the restaurant, protesters yelled, "Hands off Social Security and Medicare!"

That same day, Perry's campaign put forth word that the candidate was essentially repudiating his earlier stance on Social Security. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Perry communications director Ray Sullivan said he hadn't heard Perry suggest Social Security is unconstitutional and cast "Fed Up" as "a review and critique of 50 years of federal excesses, not in any way as a 2012 campaign blueprint or manifesto." The book, Sullivan told The Journal, is "a look back, not a path forward."

The comment came despite Perry's regular references to the book on the campaign trail. Asked about entitlement programs the day after he entered the race, as the Journal notes, Perry said, "Have you read my book, 'Fed Up!' Get a copy and read it."

Asked to elaborate, Perry spokesman Mark Miner told CBS News, "Fed Up reflects the governor's view of how our nation got into the mess we find ourselves in today and reflects his understanding of what the role of government should look like in our lives."

"In short, government should be as close to the people as possible," he continued. "That will guide the governor's thinking as he lays out his plans to get America Working Again."

Perry's apparent walking back of his controversial position on Social Security nicely illustrates that it's a lot easier to have the "courage" to oppose Social Security when you're not in the middle of a campaign. Perry noted ruefully in his book that "only retired senators chair entitlement commissions," since anyone who opposes such programs and needs to be elected can too easily be cast as a "heartless Republican." His presidential campaign seems to be proving the point.

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