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?

Republican presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry during a debate sponsored by CNN and The Tea Party Express. Click image to expand.
Rick Perry at the Sept. 12 GOP primary debate in Tampa

Rick Perry speaks the truth. Just ask him. When Time questioned Perry about his "controversial rhetoric," including his claim that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme," he didn't shrink one bit. "There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I'm really talking to the American citizen out there," he said. "I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This is a familiar construction: Leadership requires candor. John McCain ran as a "straight talker" in 2000 and, to a lesser degree, in 2008. It's also the line Barack Obama gave us in 2008, promising to tell uncomfortable truths and saying the way he talked told us something about the way he would lead.

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But do voters really want truth—or merely a reasonable facsimile? In a time when the country is sick of duplicitous (or at least misleading) Washington politics, a "truth-telling" newcomer might be crushed in the mob of well-wishers. But usually these truths consist of forceful statements about uncontroversial propositions. That's what Obama meant in 2008, and so far Perry is following a similar script. When a candidate makes so much of his candor while showing so little of it, he is engaging in the very sleight of hand that makes voters so thirsty for candor in the first place.

The immediate benefit of Perry's claims is that they distract from what might be a political liability stemming from his remarks and past writings about Social Security. His proclamations of honesty are meant to show anyone just tuning in that he is merely under attack for being the one honest man in the race.

Longer term, being seen as a "truth teller" is a big political advantage. Sarah Palin, Gov. Chris Christie, and Rep. Paul Ryan are all GOP heroes in part because they are "truth tellers." Sticking to your guns is arguably the single most important quality GOP activists are looking for in their nominee. They bring it up in interviews all the time. They want someone who will go to Washington and not get corrupted. That's what Perry's cocktail-circuit crack is about. He's not against the same cocktail circuit he must ride to raise money, mind you—just the one inside the Beltway where the GOP establishment stands around complimenting itself and raising concerns about Perry's controversial remarks. It's also a nice political wedge for Perry against Mitt Romney, who has been dogged since his last campaign by questions about his constancy.

If you are seen as a candidate who tells it like it is, then it doesn't really matter if on various issues you might not be ideologically in sync with the base. This is why one of the stock phrases in any "truth-teller's" script is, "You might not always agree with me, but you know where I stand." In Perry's case, the larger hope is that his frankness and anti-Washington posture—as well as his other attributes like his Christian faith—will connect with voters in their gut. That bond will overcome individual items that might worry conservatives, like his position on the HPV vaccine or allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges. On these issues, Perry has pretty much stood his ground, even getting booed at the last debate for his position on immigration (though he may be wobbling on the HPV vaccine decision). Mike Huckabee benefited in this way in 2008. Voters overlooked his spending record as governor and the clemency decisions that went wrong.

Telling the truth is different from being blunt. When Perry talked about roughing up Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke if he ever made it to Texas, it was controversial—and it may have even been truthful—but it wasn't exactly relevant. Which is to say, it wasn't a straightforward assessment about the current state of the nation and what is necessary to improve it. The former is nourishing to voters, but Perry is claiming credit for the latter.

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