Don’t worry, the “others” portion is short. In fact, there are only two points I want to make about his performance in last night’s debate.
First the good. There was a significant little body-language incident that said more about Perry than anything he actually gave voice to. When Newt Gingrich took the MSNBC panel to task for setting up divisive questions for the candidates, and then called on all the candidates to focus on why ObamaCare is bad rather than being drawn into attacks on each other, some of the other candidates joined the audience in applauding.
But Perry led the applause, in particular for Gingrich’s point about the candidates keeping focused and not letting internecine attacks become the story. It was a good point, and Perry applauded it vigorously enough to attract the producer’s attention. The camera on Perry was cued because he did what a leader does: he enthusiastically endorsed a good point made by another – even by a competitor – because the point was worth taking onboard for the larger effort.
It’s just a second or so of video, but it was a classic gesture of executive leadership. It seemed to come to him reflexively, from long experience of being in the central chair and not worrying about who has the good ideas, who expresses them in a timely and encouraging manner, and who gets the credit.
It was equally significant as evidence that Perry focuses on the big picture. If you watch the other candidates, you can see the gears whirring in some of their brains, as reasons crowd in on them for taking exception to one aspect or another of Gingrich’s rebuke to the panel. You can make a case against some of what Gingrich said, as the bloggers have done in the hours since the debate.
But Gingrich was right: the thing that matters is that ObamaCare is disastrous, and that it needs to be repealed and replaced – and so does Obama. Such focused clarity is rarely characteristic of Gingrich himself, but Perry recognized it immediately and endorsed it wholeheartedly. He was right to, and his gesture made it clear that it is second nature to him to be the leader of an effective team.
Now for the “other.” I have no objection to Perry referring to Social Security with the words “Ponzi scheme.” But the reference needs to be formulated better. Social Security is being run like a Ponzi scheme. That doesn’t mean the program itself was launched with the criminal objective of a Ponzi scheme. There are implications from the designation “Ponzi scheme” that don’t apply and cannot apply to Social Security: e.g., that it’s a criminal enterprise and needs to be summarily shut down, that it preys with felonious intent on the unsuspecting, that it’s deliberately designed to culminate in absconded principals and an empty bank account and unrecoverable losses.
Don’t get me wrong: I would be prepared to manage our way out of Social Security entirely. I don’t think we need the program at all, and it certainly should not be the retirement plan of first resort for any American.
But saying that doesn’t mean I want to put a stop to Social Security the way a criminal’s career is halted by arrest and incarceration. Perry doesn’t either. No serious Republican candidate does. There is no one who advocates cutting off payments to today’s seniors who depend on Social Security – which is what would be done if the federal government interrupted a genuine, privately mounted Ponzi scheme, and was deciding how to award any remaining assets.
Taking the “Ponzi scheme” reference national needs to be done in a different way. The adjustments should be pretty simple: change the wording to “Social Security is being run like a Ponzi scheme,” rather than saying it “is” one, and make the point that we need to reform the program gracefully. “Ponzi scheme” leaves the valid and important impression that participants will find all the expected money gone; it’s worthwhile keeping the shorthand. But I would urge Perry to inflect his discussions of this topic differently. “Ponzi scheme” need not be emphasized quite so much, as if people haven’t gotten the point yet. Outside the precincts of the MSM, the point is gotten; it’s time to assume it as understood, and build on it to address, in positive terms, the policy basis for proceeding from here.