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Rick Perry: Smart politics for him to call Social Security a Ponzi scheme?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is at it again, expressing himself pungently on a hot-button issue. This past weekend, it was Social Security.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is at it again, expressing himself pungently on a hot-button issue. This past weekend, it was Social Security. The front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination called the retirement program for seniors a “monstrous lie” and “a Ponzi scheme for … young people.”

Add that to Governor Perry’s comments on man-made global warming: “a scientific theory that has not been proven.” On evolution: “just a theory” with “gaps.” And on the Federal Reserve’s practice of printing more money to boost the economy: doing so again would be “almost treasonous.” Many conservatives applaud Perry, even as liberals and the mainstream media express alarm.

The long-term politics of these assertions is tricky. If Perry wins the nomination, the remarks – all on tape – could come back to haunt him. In the general election, he would have to appeal to moderates and independents, and these sorts of comments could give such voters pause.

Short term, though, his play to the Republican base appears to be spot on. Perry has shot into the lead in the two latest polls of Iowa Republican voters, who will kick off nomination season early next year.

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“Although he’s drawn ridicule from Democrats and Republican elites [for his comments on global warming and evolution], our polling suggests he’s perfectly in line with the GOP base,” writes Tom Jensen, director of the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling.

According to the PPP poll, 35 percent of Iowa Republicans believe in evolution versus 48 percent who don’t. On global warming, 21 percent of Iowa GOP voters believe in it, and 66 percent do not. Overall, Perry leads the GOP field in Iowa with 21 percent, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 18 percent and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 15 percent.

Longtime Perry-watcher, Prof. Cal Jillson of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says the governor is clearing space for himself in the Republican primaries by making eyebrow-raising comments.

“All of that is just his late arrival in a race still in flux and him saying, ‘I’m here, pay attention. I’m what you’ve been waiting for,’ ” says Professor Jillson.

Perry’s first goal, Jillson says, is to move Representative Bachmann out of the way so he can go one on one with Mr. Romney.

Regarding Perry’s comments on Social Security, Republican strategist Ford O’Connell says he’s raising the right issue – saying, in essence, that the program is going bankrupt and needs to be reformed.

“But he could couch it in better terms,” says Mr. O’Connell, chairman of Civic Forum PAC. “Should he win the nomination, it could hurt him in Florida in the general election, given its big senior population.”

In his appearance last Saturday in Ottumwa, Iowa, Perry explained what he meant by calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.

“It is a Ponzi scheme for these young people,” Perry said to a crowd at the Vine Coffeehouse, according to the Houston Chronicle. “The idea that they’re working and paying into Social Security today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie. It is a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can’t do that to them.”

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Perry said he’s not proposing changes to Social Security for people already retired or close to retirement, and he suggested the possibility of raising the retirement age and doing means tests for wealthy retirees.

These ideas are no different from what other candidates have been saying. But by starting out calling it a Ponzi scheme – a line he used in his book “Fed Up!” – he earns headlines.

The term “Ponzi scheme” is named for swindler Charles Ponzi and has come to stand for a fraudulent investment. By calling a federal program a swindle, he is challenging Washington’s legitimacy – a stance that’s popular on the right.

If Perry wins the GOP nomination, he will have to do the classic pivot from the right toward the center. Moderates and independents may not remember Perry’s flamboyant language from these past two weeks, but the Obama campaign will make sure they know about it – and they’ll have video of Perry to drive home their points.

“Perry will be borderline outrageous in the early stages of Republican events,” says Jillson. “But he’ll be center-right, promising to shake things up, if he gets to the general.”