Perry's Ponzi Problem

When I arrived at the Knightsville United Methodist Church, meeting place for the Low Country 9/12 project (and that night, a Cub Scout troop), Linda Ensor, the 2nd vice president, took care to explain the nonpartisan nature of her organization. "We don't tell them how to think, and we don't tell them to vote," she said as she described the mission of the Glenn Beck-inspired group. "We let them think how they think and vote how they vote."

Of course, as she acknowledged, theirs is a conservative group, and so it's only natural that they would discuss conservative ideas. Last Tuesday night, the topic was health-care reform, and the speaker was Republican state Senator Mike Rose, who represents Knightsville and the surrounding areas. Clad in a three-button navy-blue suit and red power tie, Senator Rose delivered dispatches from a hearing he had attended on how the Affordable Care Act will affect South Carolina and other states. "The act doesn't help people get more health care," he said, "it shifts more people onto Medicaid, and puts more people on the Medicaid rolls."

With the exception of two khaki-clad young guys, the 9/12 members were uniformly white and eligible for Medicare. They nodded along as Senator Rose described the individual mandate as "socialistic" and approvingly cited the Tenth Amendment, which, he explained, says that "the federal government cannot do anything that is not enumerated in the Constitution."

If this sounds like the language that has dominated the Republican presidential primary, that's because it is. At the Palmetto Freedom Forum one day earlier, GOP presidential hopefuls attacked a government that has "dramatically usurped power," as Mitt Romney put it during his performance. At Wednesday's Republican debate in California, candidates promised to sharply reduce the size of government. No candidate has been more vocal on the issue of constitutional limits on the federal government than Texas Governor Rick Perry. During the summer, on the question of New York state's marriage-equality law, Perry said that he was fine with the decision: "That is their call. If you believe in the Tenth Amendment, stay out of their business."

Perry has since retracted his support for New York's decision to legalize same-sex marriage, under pressure from the Family Research Council and other anti-gay groups. But he still holds to the broader principle, which resonates with many conservatives -- like the ones at the Low Country 9/12 Project.

The problem for Perry comes with his other rhetoric -- namely, his disdain for Social Security. During a campaign event in Myrtle Beach on Labor Day, the Texas governor said that "anyone who wants to keep the status quo on entitlements isn't being honest," and at Wednesday's GOP debate in California, Perry called the retirement program a "monstrous lie" and a "Ponzi scheme."

To the older, white Tea Party voters Perry needs to win the Republican nomination, this simply isn't true. "We paid into Social Security," said Steven Anderson, a member of the Low Country 9/12 project and a retiree. His wife, Judie, chimed in, "It's not an entitlement, it's ours." The same went for Art LeBruce, a retired Army medic and longtime member of the group: "That's my money that I put into Social Security -- I deserve it."

It's possible that Perry will manage to earn the support of these Republicans even as he attacks Social Security. Mr. LeBruce, for example, expressed admiration for the Texas governor -- although he would prefer a ticket with Senator Marco Rubio of Florida at the top. But it remains true that the Tea Party, and the Republican Party at large, are dominated by either entitlement recipients or those on the verge of eligibility. In a survey released last year, The New York Times and CBS News found that 75 percent of self-identified Tea Partiers are 45 and older, with 29 percent above the age of 64.

What's more, according to the Census Bureau, in the opening states of the Republican presidential primary -- Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- individuals 65 and older are a significant share of the population: 14.9 percent, 13.5 percent, and 13.7 percent respectively, compared to the national average of 13 percent. If Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann effectively hammer Perry on his hostility to Social Security, they could damage his appeal to these critical voters.

In the general election, it could be even trickier to rail against Social Security. According to an analysis by Larry Sabato of the Center for Politics, Democrats will enter the 2012 election with a lead or lock on 247 Electoral College votes. To retake the presidency with 270 votes, Democrats will have to win some combination of New Hampshire, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada or -- alternatively -- win Florida. "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" isn't just a threat to Rick Perry's campaign for the Republican nomination -- even if he becomes the nominee, it could prove to be the thread that unravels his campaign.

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