Audio: Romney unloads on Perry over Social Security again

Take it away, Philip Klein:

Romney’s decision to pile on suggests that he’s willing to play the “granny card” against Perry if it will help him get elected, a tactic more becoming of the likes of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz than a potential Republican nominee…

Romney is wrong — Social Security is forced upon us, and it is a failure. It is a scam foisted upon younger Americans who must fork over payroll taxes to fund current retirees and other government services with no prospect of actually recouping what they put into the system.

Later in the interview, Romney said he did support reforms to Social Security, such as means testing, raising the retirement age and voluntary individual accounts, but given his willingness to engage in scare tactics to win over the AARP crowd, there’s no realistic reason to believe that a President Romney would actually be willing to tackle entitlements.

Yeah, that’s the flaw in this shrewd yet cynical twist on Mediscaring. The reason Paul Ryan has attained Yoda status among conservatives is that he’s willing to accept great political risk in the name of educating the public about the unsustainability of their favorite entitlements. If Romney’s willing to risk short-circuiting that initiative in the interest of getting nominated, why wouldn’t he break from the GOP on entitlement reform as president if he thought it might help him get re-elected? Granted, he’s proposing some Social Security reforms himself, but that’s not the part of this that he wants undecideds to hear. The reform talk is aimed simply at covering his right flank so that tea partiers can’t accuse him of supporting the unsustainable status quo. What he wants low-information voters to take away from all this is that he’ll “protect” Social Security and Perry won’t. The reform talk is window dressing.

Perry’s campaign is sending around a press release noting that Romney ripped on how Social Security is funded in his own book, but that’s not inconsistent with Mitt’s reform talk. The following is a bit more damaging, but Romney can deflect it by saying, “I hadn’t read Perry’s book yet when I said it”:

“I don’t know of any Republican whose running for office who said they want to cut Social Security or Medicare benefits to people who are retired or near retirement. Not one, I haven’t heard a word of it…so Republicans, like myself, are not gonna cut social security or Medicare for people who are retired or near retirement. And for the people who say we are, they are demagoguing an issue very much that harms America. Because we need to be truthful on this.”(8/24/11, Lebanon, New Hampshire)

That should be a relatively easy reassurance for Perry to give — even Ryan takes great pains to explain that no one near retirement age would be booted from the programs — but when HuffPo pressed Perry’s spokesman last night after the debate about just how aggressive he intends to be in dealing with the program, they couldn’t get a solid answer:

“You’re going to need to get the Romney campaign to explain their positions,” Sullivan said, when asked for an answer about whether Perry was being misrepresented.

After a detailed explanation of what the Romney campaign was saying, and which portion of Perry’s book the campaign was pointing to, Sullivan again refused to answer: “Talk to them,” he said.

Asked a third time whether Perry’s position was being misstated, Sullivan again said obliquely: “The governor stated his position tonight, he stated his position in the past and he will state his position in the future.”…

In a way, Perry’s campaign could be attempting to set a trap for Romney, hoping that he sinks his teeth so deeply into defending Social Security that he comes to represent — for Republican primary voters — the face of the status quo when it comes to entitlement spending. Entitlements are the largest driver of the nation’s long-term debt obligations, an issue of great concern for Republicans.

That’s what they’re counting on, I’m sure — that a guy known for being a bit too soft on big government will end up looking like he’s a lot too soft on the biggest part of all. Perry will have plenty of cover if he wants to stick by the “Ponzi scheme” talk, both among populist heroes and influential academics. But GOP primary voters skew old, and like I said last night, some undecideds may come to view this issue as a proxy for electability, with even conservatives who are sympathetic to Perry’s view on this bailing on him if they think it’ll leave him a sitting duck for Obama in the general. In fact, according to Nate Silver’s poll analysis, Republican voters right now are weighing electability and commitment to principle roughly equally; as the race wears on and the battle with Obama looms, I suspect the former will start to weight even more heavily than the latter. Exit question: What’s Perry’s next move? Click the image to listen.