Columns » Ernest Dumas

Frightening the elderly


Rick Perry image
  • Gage Skidmore

If Rick Perry is the Republican choice to run the country — at the moment, he is, by a wide margin — something truly revolutionary is afoot.

On the other hand, it could merely mean what is already certain, that something revolutionary is afoot in the Republican Party.

Perry would be the first Republican nominee for president since Alf Landon in 1936 that wanted to end Social Security. Landon lost the electoral vote 523-8 and, ever since, it has been considered suicide for Republicans to voice their hatred of old age, survivors and disability insurance.

Landon didn't really hate Social Security but rather admired Franklin Roosevelt and his social programs. But he agreed to criticize Social Security and promise to undo it. He would later admit that it was a terrible mistake and he was afterward a champion of Social Security, unemployment insurance and the other New Deal economic-relief programs.

The first Republican president after FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, came under pressure from the extreme right of the party to try to repeal Social Security and the rest of the New Deal. Eisenhower's older brother, Edgar, who thought Roosevelt was the spawn of the devil, wrote him an angry letter saying that Social Security was unconstitutional and that Ike was no better than the Democrats because he wouldn't try to undo the New Deal.

Ike's polite but blunt response has been received wisdom for half a century. He said the U.S. Supreme Court determined what was constitutional and it had never denied the right of the federal government to act to improve the general welfare.

"To attain any success," Eisenhower told his brother, "it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H.L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

You can't say that Eisenhower would call Perry stupid because Perry has now begun to slide away from his suggestions that he would abolish Social Security or alter it in some serious way. He still insists that it is "a Ponzi scheme" (Ponzi's scheme lasted 200 days but Social Security has lasted 75 years and the German social-insurance program on which it was based 122 years), but in the televised Tea Party debate Monday night Perry said it obviously couldn't be repealed. Social Security is bad for the country, but he implied that he wouldn't do anything about it if he became president.

Still, Perry gets more applause when he stands by his principles and says Social Security is bad for the country and he draws silence when he says he would merely try to be sure that people got their checks, perhaps by raising taxes or cutting benefits.

So is the country turning that far to the right or is it merely the suddenly vocal chorus from the right-wing conspiracists who believe all government efforts to help people is communism?

Republicans have never been averse to frightening the elderly and the young by suggesting that Social Security or Medicare would not be there for them soon or when they reach retirement age. Even Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee and a strong supporter of Social Security, said people would not be getting their checks from the Democrats. Mitt Romney, who leads the Social Security attacks on Perry, says Social Security is in dire shape. It's not. If small steps aren't taken to trim future costs and raise revenues, the trust fund will be exhausted in about 30 years and benefits will be cut about 19 percent, which would be about the same inflation-adjusted pension they receive now.

Last year, a Republican campaign persuaded millions of the elderly voters that the Democratic Congress was responsible for a freeze on their monthly checks. It wasn't. It was a product of the Social Security formula and low inflation.

Republicans owe their big victory in the 2010 congressional elections considerably to having persuaded seniors that President Obama and the Democrats had set about in the 2010 health-insurance reform to cut their benefits under another social-insurance program that Republicans once labeled a Ponzi scheme, Medicare.

Romney, the putative father of Obamacare, said once again Monday night that the Democrats had cut people's Medicare by $500 billion. They didn't. There will be future Medicare savings by slashing the huge insurance company profits from Medicare Advantage plans, trimming drug-company profits and scaling back charges by physician specialists. "Obamacare" actually expands Medicare benefits.

So the big-haired Texan is different from his competitors only by degrees, and perhaps by intellect. It is not clear that he understands either the history of Social Security or how it works. We will find out if he is smarter than Ike. If it turns out that he is, the country is in bigger trouble than anyone imagines.

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