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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“It’s Not an Entitlement–It’s Ours”

Today’s underwhelming news on the presidential campaign trail is that Tim Pawlenty has endorsed Mitt Romney for president. With that and five or six bucks, Romney can get a very good king-sized latte at Starbucks.
What makes the announcement interesting, however, is that T-Paw immediately jumped on the message-du-jour of the Romney campaign: bashing Rick Perry on Social Security:

“Gov. Romney wants to fix Social Security. He doesn’t want to abolish it or end it,” Pawlenty said. “Gov. Perry has said in the past that he thought it was ‘failed.'”

Now this messaging may be temporary, attributable to the venue of tonight’s CNN/Tea Party Express candidate debate in Florida.
But maybe it’s not, and Team Romney perceives Perry’s negative remarks on Social Security (and Medicare, and basically every progressive policy initiative of the twentieth century) in Fed Up as a potential silver bullet, partially on grounds that the issue affects Perry’s electability, and partially because elderly Republican primary voters are sensitive about their own benefits, even though the Texan claims they’ll get every nickel they expect.
If so, does this represent a rare example of a Republican presidential candidate deliberately running “to the left” of a rival in the primaries?
Not necessarily. It’s important to understand that many seniors simply do not look at Social Security and Medicare as “government redistribution programs” no different than Medicaid or Obamacare, but as earned benefits–as an “entitlement” in a very literal sense. Jamelle Bouie of The American Prospect traveled to a Tea Party event in South Carolina recently and picked up on this sentiment:

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 long-time member of the group, “That’s my money that I put into Social Security–I deserve it.”

This is the same sentiment, which many progressives interpret as blatant hypocrisy or selfishness, that led so many conservative seniors to adamantly oppose ObamaCare while demanding no cuts in Medicare–or even because they believed extending health coverage to the uninsured would directly lead to Medicare cuts.
The fact that Social Security, and to an even greater extent Medicare, in fact do represent a redistribution of money from taxpayers to most if not all beneficiaries has not shaken the iron conviction of many seniors that the programs are fundamentally different from “welfare” in any form.
So ideologues like Perry who have identified Social Security and Medicare as just part of the vast march to socialism during the twentieth century are in danger of an attack that may conventionally look like it’s coming from “the left” but may actually threaten them most among staunch conservatives who think federal austerity measures should strictly come out of the hide of “those people” who haven’t “earned” their benefits–you know, younger people, poorer people, darker people. Perry’s “grandfathering” ploy of going after Social Security and Medicare while promising today’s seniors they won’t be affected may help some, but doesn’t deal with the underlying reality that many conservative voters less concerned with ideological rigor just don’t buy the idea that “their” programs are part of the problem in the first place. A really clever if dishonest attack line on Perry might even combine criticism of the Texan’s positions on retirement programs and immigration and suggest he’s protecting “those people” at the expense of “us.”
If that happens (and Michele Bachmann strikes me as just the kind of rival who will go in that direction), the immediate perception that the debate over Social Security and Medicare is pushing the 2012 Republican field to the “left” or “center” in order to better position the GOP for the general election could be off 180 degrees. It could in fact promote a dynamic in which candidates become more and more direct in appeals to their older white conservative base that budget decisions and social policies are really just a matter of “us” versus “them.”

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