TAMPA, Fla.—Rick Perry served five years in the Air Force, and at his second presidential debate, he must have had flashbacks. He stalled, climbed, and clattered into a few hard landings. He was under fire from the left, right, and above. Ron Paul said Perry had raised taxes as governor of Texas. Mitt Romney said Perry wanted to end Social Security. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum repeatedly criticized Perry's decision to vaccinate young girls against HPV. After Perry peeled off into the clouds during an answer to a question on Afghanistan, GOP strategist Mike Murphy wrote on Twitter: "Listening to Perry try to a put a complicated policy sentence together is like watching a chimp play with a locked suitcase."
Mayday, Wolf Blitzer, Mayday!
Perry took the attacks like a veteran, but it was not a good night for him. Romney was polished, he had his answers prepared, and his attack lines honed. If you were scoring this as an academic exercise, Romney would be the clear winner. But the audience of Tea Party activists in the hall for the debate co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express and CNN weren't grading on that scale. They appeared to like Perry much more than Romney. That's the broader split that exists in the larger Republican electorate: Do GOP voters want the ragged, forceful, conservative Perry—or do they want the measured, methodical, and less ideological Romney?
The early heat and pushing started over Social Security. It was a bit of a jumble as Romney and Perry rolled around on the ground. There's a really good chance it's going to get confused (Perry got cheers when he shouldn't have), so let me try to pull the two men of good hair apart and assign points.
The two governors traded barbs about who has minted the more baroque criticism of Social Security. Perry has called it a "Ponzi scheme." Romney has compared it to a criminal enterprise. This is boring and inconsequential. They can both claim they're talking about aspects of the current system. Romney has a more pointed critique, though. He points to comments in Perry's book Fed Up! where Perry argues that Social Security is a 70-year fraud forced on the American people. He argues that it should have been a private or state-run system and should be again. Romney asked Perry if that's what he still believes. Perry dipped, dived, and dodged, reasserting that he was the truth teller in the race.
Here's his problem: If Perry is asking for truth-telling credit for diagnosing Social Security's problems (which everyone diagnoses), then he should also accept the deduction for not honestly embracing his position in his book. He's ducking while simultaneously asking that he be given points for standing tall.
Why does this matter? First, the politics. In 2008, 44 percent of the GOP primary voters in Florida were over 50. That number is slightly higher in Iowa. Right now Perry leads with those voters. According to the latest CNN/ORC International poll, Perry currently has an 18 –percentage point advantage among Republicans aged 50 and over, leading Romney 38 percent to 20 percent.
This debate is part of a larger one, which can essentially be reduced to a single question: How big a sandwich do you want to eat with this new president? Social Security is going to get reformed. What do you want to have happen in that instance? Do you want to change the retirement age, index benefit increases to prices and not wages, maybe flirt with some private accounts? That's what you'll get with Romney. Or do you want the whole program to be under the purview of the states? Tea Party activists I talked to earlier in the day wanted to scrap it and move it to the states. I'm not sure general election voters want that. Do House and Senate Republicans want to run on that platform? They're already running on the Ryan plan, which offers a fundamental change in Medicare, turning it into a voucher-like program. That's a lot of change the 2012 GOP will be promising a country already fatigued with change.
Perry hasn't actually put forward a Social Security plan that sends the program to the states, but that's the scope of his ambitions on a whole host of things. By contrast, Romney gave his sharpest and most effective argument for his candidacy: "The country needs a turnaround, that's what I do."