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

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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.

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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.

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