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Social Security: The 'Third Rail' No More?

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It's often been called the "third rail" of American politics. If so, many of those running for office this political season are living dangerously.

Social Security — what's wrong with it and how to fix it — has become part of the political debate in the presidential primary season. Most candidates say they have plans to reform it, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry has gone further, saying that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie."

Although Perry may be running into resistance from Republican voters, it's not because of his stand on Social Security.

'What's Wrong With Calling It A Ponzi Scheme?'

In recent debates, moderators have asked Perry to defend his tough views on Social Security. In his book Fed Up! Perry calls the program used by nearly 55 million Americans "a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal." He says it's part of the nation's march toward socialism, something Americans have been forced to accept for more than 70 years "at the expense of respect for the Constitution."

At last week's debate in Orlando, Fla., Perry tried to distance himself from some of those comments. His leading rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, called him on it.

"There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying that ... the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional — unconstitutional — and it should be returned to the states," Romney said. "So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."

Perry says he never intended to suggest that the federal Social Security program should be scrapped and given over to the states. But he hastened in that debate, and in other speeches, to reassure voters.

"Well, let me just say first, for those people that are on Social Security today, for those people that are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about," Perry said. "We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country that that Social Security program in place today will be there for them."

Some Republicans have begun to question Perry's conservative credentials because of his support of a Texas law extending in-state tuition rates to children of illegal immigrants.

But some Republican activists who heard Perry's comments say they weren't bothered by his harsh characterization of Social Security.

Diane Warren, a retiree from Apopka, Fla., asked: What's wrong with calling it a Ponzi scheme?

"Isn't a Ponzi scheme where you put in money now, and then you will get paid back later on somebody else's money?"

Warren was one of 3,500 Republican activists at a state party event last week for a presidential debate and straw poll. She said that with this group, tough talk on Social Security is no longer off limits.

"The seniors in our day and age are not the seniors from the '70s, '80s, '90s. We're more aware, we're involved. And the Tea Party was a big part of that," she said.

In Florida, Republicans Are 'In One Camp'

Warren's comments don't come as a surprise to Peter Brown. He helps direct the Quinnipiac University poll, which recently surveyed Floridians to get their reaction to Perry's comments.

"A majority of voters overall say it's not fair — that the idea of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme does not jibe with their view," he says. "But a majority of Republicans say that it does."

Among a cross-section of Florida voters — Republicans, Democrats and independents — Brown says about as many people think Perry wants to end Social Security as fix it.

"But Florida Republicans are very much in one camp," Brown says. "By 4 to 1, they think he wants to fix it, not end it. And obviously, that's helpful data when he's running for the Republican presidential nomination."

One of the state's leading Republicans, House Speaker Dean Cannon, is helping run Perry's campaign in Florida.

"I don't think [Social Security] is a third rail anymore," he says. Cannon points to Republican Marco Rubio's Senate win last year over independent Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek. Crist ran ads attacking Rubio for wanting to raise the Social Security retirement age and consider cutting benefits.

Rubio won easily.

In that context, Cannon says calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme hardly registers with Florida voters.

"The benefits that are there for the people who are about to retire or even close to it are absolutely an inviolate trust of the American people," he says. "But we've got to be honest about changing it."

That may be the case in the primary, but many Republicans are still nervous about how Social Security will play in the general election. One in five Floridians receives Social Security, and the issue may help determine how the eventual Republican nominee does here.

Bill Donegan, a Republican official from the Orlando area, says that in Florida politics, the history is clear.

"Any time you deal with Social Security, or you deal with Medicare or Medicaid," he says, "you better be real sure how you word it."

That's because positions and issues that work for you in the primary can be used against you in the general election.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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