Republican Debate Underscores It’s a Perry Romney Race: Social Security Divide Clearly Emerges

The first Republican 2012 Presidential debate featuring the sudden front runner Texas Governor Rick Perry last night underscored four political facts of life:

FACT ONE: It is a two person race between Perry and former Massachesetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is also a former moderate if his current day positions are to be believed.

FACT TWO: Even though Romney has lost his front-runner status he has no intention of rolling over and playing politically dead. Romney, the career politician who always blasts career politicians, had one of his best debate performances last night. His performance most likely motivate GOP establishment types to triple their efforts to help him get the nomination and stop Perrry. This would most assuredly include Republicans closely allied with the party’s Bush wing.

FACT THREE: Perry did not totally self-destruct and in terms of a wider electorate than the Republican base it probably it was a serviceable but not home run debut on the national stage: he most likely pleased those who agree with him who will now insist he won and is the successor to Ronald Reagan and most likely raised eyebrows among many independents and more moderate Democrats but probably not enough now to be viewed as nightmare inducing. But his position on Social Security must have Democratic strategists salivating.

FACT FOUR: It’s will be a Presidential election with two clearly defined choices with the stakes raised in light of President Barack Obama’s decreasing standing in perceptions of him being a smart politician, a skillful leader, being able to prevent the economy’s seeming slide backwards into crisis, and poll numbers steadily heading south.

FACT FIVE: Obama’s jobs speech tonight is more important than ever in defining him for his campaign. One more resounding, soaring speech won’t do. He’ll need to make solid proposals and battle for them because his speeches now have a been there/done that quality to them — a feeling candidate Perry or Romney will likely exploit.

FACT SIX: If she did intend to jump into the race — highly unlikely since she is still getting a Fox News paycheck — Sarah Palin’s political moment has now passed. She has as realistic chance of getting the Republican nomination now as Newt Gingrich. Gingrich again played his attack-the-media card which is proving timesome. Gingrich has a bright future as a former House Speaker, former political candidate and former leader who once upon a time in a political galaxy far away could be taken seriously. He seems to be running for King of the Soundbytes rather than President of the United States.

Here’s a roundup of press and blog reaction to the debate:
The Province:

Texas governor Rick Perry came out swinging in his national debut Wednesday, all but calling President Barack Obama a liar, describing Social Security as a fraud and attacking his main Republican rival in the presidential race.

Perry, a conservative Tea Party favourite and the Republican front-runner, traded barbs with closest competitor Mitt Romney over who has created more jobs.

Their testy exchange in Perry’s first presidential debate was proof that the fight to determine the 2012 Republican challenger to Democrat Obama is becoming a two-man contest.

The Christian Science Monitor:

Those looking for presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry to spar tonight got their wish early on in the Republican debate Wednesday night.

The two men lashed out at each other’s records on job creation and set the tone for an evening that was largely focused on the two front-runners and their differences.

Mr. Romney defended his record as the former Massachusetts governor, as Texas Governor Perry touted his own achievements.

“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry told Romney, who instantly snapped back: “George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did.”

And that was just the first 10 minutes.

It was Perry’s first debate since entering the race in August – and quickly taking the lead in the polls – and, as expected, he was the main focus of the evening, both from the moderators and his fellow debaters.

“I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party,” he quipped at one point.

Most notably, he continued to defend his statement that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” despite the bashing that the comment has taken in recent days from fellow Republicans.

“You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme,” he reiterated, drawing immediate criticism from several other GOP candidates, clearly looking to mark differences.

“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who’s committed to saving Social Security,” countered Romney, taking issue with Perry’s statement that “by any measure Social Security is a failure.”

Some of Andrew Sullivan’s live blogging:

9.57 pm. My take-away? Perry has proved himself an extreme, inarticulate, incurious W clone. He doubled down on the vicious attacks on social security; and his rhetoric was off-key. Huntsman emerged as an actual candidate; Romney kicked ass. Bachmann is wearing thinner and thinner. Paul is Paul. Santorum is a Vatican crank. Gingrich is an angry old man. Cain has no business being up there. Perry’s poor performance gives Palin an opening. And an actual argument that people can understand about economic policy did not emerge.

9.52 pm. I still have no clear idea of what any of these candidates would do to turn the economy around. I’d support major tax reform, but all they have been offering is warmed over Reaganism. But Reagan is relevant for the 1980s, not the 20-teens. An entire generation has grown up and moved on. Tax receipts are at their lowest in fifty years; infrastructure is obviously vital; job growth was pathetic after the Bush tax cuts. Of course we all agree that only the private sector can truly spur economic growth, but, really: that’s it?

The University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato is one of the country’s best and most reliable political analyists. Here are a few Tweets from his Twitter feed:

LarrySabato Larry Sabato
Newt continues to win more applause than votes. Paul maintains his backing but doesn’t expand. Huntsman flopped. No change for others.

LarrySabato Larry Sabato
Big loser: Bachmann. Nothing stopped her ongoing fall.

LarrySabato Larry Sabato
Romney held his own but he’s dependent on R doubts that Perry can win general. Mitt is runner-up nominee for now.

LarrySabato Larry Sabato
Odd: Perry has both won & lost debate. Rs liked what he said & how he said it. But Social Security comments are BIG swing voter problem.

Here are some Tweets from another topflight analyst, National Interest columnist Dick Polman:

DickPolman1 Dick Polman
If anyone who saw the debate can figure out what the heck Rick #Perry was talking about when he cited Galileo, you must be smarter than me.

DickPolman1 Dick Polman
Biggest GOP audience applause of the night? The fact that #Perry’s Texas tops America in the state-sanctioned killing of inmates.

DickPolman1 Dick Polman
The Nat’l Acad of Sciences says 97 pct of scientists believe in man-made climate change. #Perry and his biz backers love the other 3 pct.

DickPolman1 Dick Polman
Re #Huntsman’s Afghanistan line, “We need to bring our troops home”: In the past, a Repub could never say that – and get Repub applause.

DickPolman1 Dick Polman
#Newt in Nixon mode again, blaming the media for instigating Republican infighting – when in fact Repubs have real policy differences.

The Hill:

The highly-anticipated fight between Romney and Perry, the two front-runners for the GOP nomination, largely lived up to expectations, with extended spats between the pair throughout the debate.

But none of the exchanges were more pointed than the back-and-forth between Romney and Perry at the top of the debate over each other’s record on jobs.

Each candidate was allowed the first two questions at the NBC News/Politico debate, hosted at the Reagan presidential library, and each answered their questions amicably. But that quickly gave ground to open squabbling once Perry and Romney were given a chance to engage each other.

“While he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that,” Perry said of Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. “As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.”

Republican and Democratic critics alike point to the Bay State’s ranking as 47th-best of 50 states in job creation during Romney’s time in office.

Romney responded by saying that he inherited a situation as governor that involved a turnaround. Romney said he would have been grateful to have the advantages — a wealth of natural resources, a friendly state legislature, and so on — that Perry has had as governor.

“Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney said. “If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”

The Telegraph blog:

It was a fascinating debate here at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. The Republican race is now fully underway and the candidates readily exchanged blows. Notably, they did so cheerfully and without apparent rancour. Governor Rick Perry is clearly a happy warrior and Mitt Romney seems much more at ease with himself these days.

So who won? Hard to say definitively. Romney probably shaded it in many respects – he had clever, well-delivered lines against Perry about George W. Bush creating more jobs in Texas and Perry being like Al Gore in claiming all the credit for the Texas economy just as Gore claimed he took the initiative in creating the Internet.

Romney has done many, many more national debates than Perry and that showed. No one laid a finger on him over his Massachusetts healthcare plan – his biggest vulnerability – and Perry neglected to stress that he didn’t want to abolish Social Security for those nearing retirement age. Perry was better on the attack than defence and some of his answers could have been more fluent.

The tack Romney is taking on Obama – that he’s a nice guy who is out of his depth – is well-judged and comes across as mature. Perry’s suggestion that Obama might be “an abject liar to the American people” is red meat to conservative primary voters but might come across as too harsh, especially when polls show most Americans still like Obama.

But – and there are some big buts here for Romney – this could well be a case where the pundits proclaim Romney the clear winner and the people beg to differ. The Romney argument that Perry had it easy by being a 10-year governor of a big conservative state whereas poor old Mitt was a one-term governor of a small, very liberal state is not exactly a winning one.

Glenn Reynolds aka Instapundit quotes bloggers Ann Althouse and Stephen Green then gives his reaction:

UPDATE: Althouse’s summary:

My overall impression? The moderators tried to provoke a war amongst Republicans, and Gingrich was the hero of the evening by calling them out. I thought Huntsman did himself some good, and Bachmann for some reason didn’t find a way to stand out. The main focus was on Perry and Romney — in part because the moderators made that happen. And I think Romney looked better than Perry. As they say, he seemed presidential. He had a lot of poise and he made plenty of sense. Perry seemed rough, but it was his first go round.

And Stephen Green’s:

Maybe that has more to do with Obama than any of candidates themselves — and I suspect that it does. But I’ll take this opportunity to quote Robert Heinlein, who said that the difference between bad and worse is much greater than the difference between good and better.

And most any of these candidates — even Santorum, whom I despise, and Huntsman, who I think is useless at best — rises above Heinlein’s level of “bad.”

Yeah, they’re all better than Obama. But that’s setting the bar pretty low.

Crooks and Liar’s Heather:

It appears Gov. Rick Perry has decided to double down on his previous statements that Social Security was a “monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme” for young people who are paying into the program now. Perry also went after Karl Rove who criticized Perry’s remarks on Social Security as being “toxic.”

When asked to respond to Perry’s statements, Mitt Romney disagreed and although he said he agreed that the program had some funding problems, he felt the GOP should not be scaring seniors and that their nominee should be someone committed to saving the program rather than abolishing it.

I think Perry just did his best to make sure he’s completely unelectable in the general election after his first debate. Even though Romney said he did not agree with Perry’s statements on Social Security, he did not bother to remind him the program is projected to be fully solvent until 2037 and after that expected to pay out roughly seventy five percent of benefits, nor did he remind him of that the actual definition of a Ponzi scheme is.

Pajamas Media:

Romney’s hitting Perry, to the exclusion of all other GOP presidential candidates, exposes the reality that he came into tonight’s debate worried at having lost his frontrunner status to the Texas governor. He wisely stayed away from punching down at any of the trailing candidates, but it’s worth wondering whether this strategy may prove to be a bit too aggressive.

Update: While the Romney press shop was cranking out press releases, a Romney adviser was busy emailing Ben Smith at the Politico to declare that Perry had “lost” because he said that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.

Romney adviser Stuart Stevens emails:

He has lost. No federal candidate has ever won on the Perry program to kill Social Security. Never has. never will.

One, why is this even controversial? It has been known since at least the 1980s that Social Security was on a collision course with the Baby Boom generation, at which point we will have too many retirees taking out of the system what younger Americans are putting in. And two, why is Romney’s shop peddling its attacks on Perry to the Politico? Romney circa 2008 was great at outreach to conservative blogs. Romney circa 2011 is stiffarming conservative blogs and using the liberal Politico to slam fellow Republicans. That’s not a healthy shift in my opinion. Romney is essentially trying to use one of the GOP’s ideological enemies to win the GOP nomination.

Josh Marshall:

In the previous post, I said that tonight was a strategic victory for Mitt Romney and a setback for Rick Perry. The rejoinder I’m hearing from a lot of smart people is that those points about are about a general election — not a Republican primary election, which is what this is. I don’t think that’s quite true in this case …But if it’s not, that’s a big win for President Obama. Because those statements just won’t fly with the general electorate.

I heard someone else say Mitt’s embrace of Social Security was bad news for the Democrats. Because that takes it off the table for the Democrats in the general election. Again, I don’t buy that. Because Mitt’s only saying he’s more pro-Social Security than Perry. And he’s got most of his party committed to various forms of privatization and cuts to Social Security. The more Mitt positions himself as the defender of Social Security, the more it gets him tripped up with members of his own party. That’s not the end of the world for Mitt. But I don’t think he can take it off the table against the Democrats or President Obama.

In my mind, whatever the polls say tomorrow, Mitt Romney came out of tonight with a strong argument that Rick Perry can’t win a general election.

USA Today:

Perry’s performance Wednesday night in the forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., demonstrated not only his considerable strength in the Republican primaries — he has rocketed to the top of the national polls little more than three weeks after announcing his candidacy — but also his clear vulnerabilities in a general election.

And it illustrated the changing shape of the GOP contest for the nomination to take on President Obama in 2012. The spotlight was on Perry and Romney, the man he dislodged as frontrunner in national polls. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite who was the star of the first debate, was largely eclipsed and the other contenders often had to battle to get into the conversation.
So the question ahead may be this: Can Romney or others raise enough questions about Perry’s ability to attract the independent voters needed to win the White House to curtail the Texas governor’s stunning rise among Republican conservatives?

Freedom’s Lighthouse:

When [NBC's Brian] Williams asked Perry about the “234 Executions” in Texas on his watch, the crowd at the Reagan Library cheered, and Perry said he had no problem sleeping. Perry made it clear that if you commit murder in Texas, you can expect to face the ultimate penalty:

“No sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all . . . If you kill one of our children or police officers or another citizen in a crime you will face the ultimate justice in Texas.”

This was a strong moment for Perry.


The Politico:

Rick Perry battled a withering barrage of attacks in his first debate as a presidential candidate Wednesday night, at times stumbling in the face of harsh criticism – and difficult questioning – at the POLITICO/NBC debate.

But Perry proved himself to be an aggressive, often caustic debater, waiting only a few moments to go on the attack against his top rival, Mitt Romney, for his jobs record as governor of Massachusetts.

“He had one of the lowest job creation rates in the country,” Perry said. “As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.”

Perry also assailed Romney over the issue of health care, blasting the one-time GOP frontrunner for signing a universal health care law that included a requirement that individuals purchase health insurance.

“It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate in this country,” Perry said.

Romney – who has been in well over a dozen presidential debates, dating back to his first White House run in 2007 – didn’t budge, pushing back on Perry’s claims one by one.

“George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor,” Romney said, arguing that Texas businesses have benefited from conditions – such as the absence of a state income tax – that Perry did not create.

“Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney joked. “If he tried to say that, why, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”

TNR’s Jonathan Chait:

Yet Perry, stylistically, ruled the roost. The media seems to consider Romney the winner. Pardon the condescension, but they’re not thinking like Republican base voters. Romney approaches every question as if he is in an actual debate, trying to provide the most intellectually compelling answer available, within the bounds of political expediency. Perry treats questions as interruptions. What scientists do you trust on climate change? I don’t want to risk the economy. Are you taking a radical position on social security? We can have reasons or we can have results. His total liberation from the constraints of reason give Perry a chance to represent the Republican id in a way Romney simply cannot match.

In this way Perry eerily apes the style of George W. Bush, who was also mocked for his intellectually vapid debating style, but who succeeded in rallying Republicans behind him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I suspect the Bush-Perry debating style broadcasts a subliminal message of strong leadership. Romney feels compelled to bind himself to the parameters of the question before him. Perry ignores them. It is, in a sense, an alpha male move. I am not going to lower myself to your premise about scientists. I am going to declare my principles.

In my view, Perry established his alpha male style, and that impression will matter more than any position or statement he’s made.

The Atlantic’s Jill Lawrence:

The first Republican debate with Rick Perry onstage confirmed that this really is a two-man race and illuminated the stark choice ahead for GOP primary voters. Perry is a provocateur, whether the subject is Social Security or Karl Rove. Mitt Romney is the safe option, the solid corporate citizen who wants to save grandma’s Social Security and fix the economy 59 ways. You know you should marry him and stop eyeing that other guy, the daredevil on the fast motorcycle. You want excitement from Romney? How about that Swiss polka-dot tie?

The news of the evening, aside from Perry proving he belongs in the top tier, was the way Romney went after Perry on Social Security. Perry’s fusillades against the program have long been seen as a potentially huge liability in a general election. Given Romney’s new tack, it looks like they’ll be coming back to bite him much sooner.

Red States’s Eric Erickson:

First, I don’t think Perry had as strong a performance tonight as he could have. He stumbled several times. Romney had a stronger performance — the strongest of anyone on stage in fact. But then, Romney has been in this dog and pony show since 2007. Perry is just stepping up to this level. He made no major mistakes, but could have been stronger on the HPV issue and a few other issues.

Second, it is clear Perry is the front runner given the pile on from the other candidates. It was not just pushed by MBNBC and the Politico. The other candidates took willful potshots against Rick Perry. Perry, despite some stumbles and the pile on by the moderators and other participants, held his own and will only get stronger the more of these he does. And if he doesn’t? Goodbye frontrunner status.

Third, Michele Bachmann’s star has faded. The recognition of this is the reporter focus on Perry v. Romney buttressed by Bachmann’s own outgoing campaign manager, Ed Rollins, that the race was a two man race between Perry and Romney.

Ezra Klein:

Mitt Romney looked like he had already won the Republican nomination. Rick Perry looked like he will win the Republican nomination. Michele Bachmann looked like she was beginning to realize she definitely wouldn’t win the Republican nomination.

The political fireworks and drama assure that if Barack Obama’s speech is perceived as same old/same old media attention will continue to shift to the GOPers and swing voters in particular will be starting to judge who seems more likely to be able to get the United States out of the economic crisis and who is in their comfort zone. Clearly, Perry and Romney will be getting the most press attention and media ink/airtime as they respond to Obama tonight and in coming days.

10 Comments

  1. Great summary.

    Thanks, Joe

  2. “I think Perry just did his best to make sure he’s completely unelectable in the general election after his first debate.” ~ C&L’s Heather

    Bingo.

  3. If you are a member of the hardcore Republican base (pro-life and pro-death), Perry was the winner, witness the thunderous applause over the death penalty question.

    If you are an Independent voter, Romney was the winner.

    If you are Barack Obama, Perry’s flapdoodle statements about Social Security were manna from electoral heaven and you can expect to see them over and over next year.

  4. Based on the issues as stated by the each candidate, I truly believe that Cain is the only one that can give the President a run for his money come the general election. He is the only one talking economic meat.

  5. All that pro-death applause was sickening. I don’t know which was more disgusting, Perry or his fans.

  6. @ Shaun: Despite thinking that Kennedy v. Louisiana was wrongly decided, and supporting expansion of the death penalty into areas of drug trafficking, child molestation, and rape, among others, and being staunchly pro-life, I cannot applaud the execution of any person. That being said, I cannot get beyond Rick Perry’s intellectual incuriosity.

  7. Being “intellectually incurious, and just plain clueless” hasn’t been a dealbreaker with republicans for decades. In any case, Perry shares those failings with GWB – which is why he has been referred to as a W clone.

  8. Although it was not the best politics, technically what Perry said was true.

    If the definition of a ponzi scheme is you collect money from Group A with a promise of return then collect money from Group B to pay off group A and then collect from Group C to pay B and so on…

    Technically that’s pretty much how social security works.

  9. I don’t see how the debate itself established that “it is a two person race between Perry and former Massachesetts Gov. Mitt Romney.” To me, it established that the GOP field is fairly competitive across five or six candidates and that Perry is not in the top tier, in terms of debate performance per se.

  10. @Patrick
    You forgot the other classical feature: the one running the scheme skims a bunch for their own purposes.

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