Rick Perry's Social Security rhetoric: Truth-telling in politics is hard to do.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 15 2011 7:20 PM

Rick Perry Prides Himself on Telling Truths

But just what kind of truths are they?

(Continued from Page 1)

Nor is it a particularly courageous act in a party primary to hold a position your base agrees with but which upsets your opponents. In 2008, Obama was against the Iraq war when his party was against it. Likewise, while liberals may be offended when Perry questions global warming and evolution, for the purposes of the Republican primary, it does not qualify as truth-telling. To his base, these are noncontroversial issues.

During the 2008 campaign, Obama regularly proclaimed that he would tell voters "hard truths," but he never really did. What he meant was that he would say one mildly controversial thing, not that he would shoot himself with truth serum before answering every question. So he talked about how, at a speech in Detroit, his mention of raising fuel-efficiency standards received a cool reception. This sounded like classic truth-telling: speaking candidly to an interested party in a way that might cause you political pain. But speaking sternly to auto executives is a narrower feat than speaking candidly to voters. That's why at the end of the speech Obama referred to, he got a standing ovation.

Advertisement

The story seemed a little small for the sweeping speak-truth-to-power claims that were being made for it. So, too, do Perry's claims about telling the truth on Social Security. He's taking a big stand on a small plot of land. Perry is claiming candor for speaking the "truth" about Social Security's long-term fiscal condition. In the last debate, he said younger voters should know that he is someone "who came along that didn't lie to them, that didn't try to go around the edges and told them the truth." He has dropped calling it a "failure," so what remains is not very controversial. Plenty of people agree that the program needs to be fixed. Perry says no one has tried to do anything about the problem; he may want to talk to George W. Bush, who did try—and failed.

Where Perry does have an opportunity to tell the truth is on the specifics of his plans to fix Social Security. This is not advisable. Specificity gets you in trouble, which is why candidate Obama, after saying reforms such as raising the retirement age and indexing benefits were on the table, then took them off. In his book, Perry makes the case for having the states run Social Security. This qualifies as truth-telling—and may even count as exciting, if we can use that adjective about Social Security reform. But when pressed on this issue during this week's debate, Perry retreated from specifics. (To his credit, Perry has not always retreated. In Dubuque, Iowa, in August, before the Social Security issue became so touchy, he said state control might be an option to consider, and he has also suggested that those with fixed incomes should contribute to their Medicare or Medicaid costs in order "to have skin in the game.")

The question now for Perry, as it is for every politician who proclaims his loyalty to the truth, is how and when to tell it. Sometimes politicians really do tell people things they don't want to hear. Other times they just maintain the posture of telling hard truths as a way to obscure their positions. A truth-teller knows the difference.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.