The frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination offered America’s opposition party two starkly different visions of its future on Wednesday night. During a debate in southern California, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney appealed to different parts of the Republican electorate. Whoever emerges as the candidate could shape American conservative thoughts for years to come.
Romney, who previously sought the Republican presidential nomination for the 2008 election, is perceived as moderate on social issues and the choice of the party establishment. Perry, a firebrand social conservative, is popular with the Tea Party, the activist movement that helped propel Republicans to victory in last year’s midterm elections for Congress.
After losing their majorities in both chambers of Congress as well as the presidency, Republicans refurbished their small government brand in opposition to spendthrift Democrats who enacted health-care legislation that is extremely unpopular on the right. In November, they regained a majority in the House of Representatives and picked up many additional governor’s seats across the country.
The Tea Party is one template for the future Republican Party but there are establishment lawmakers and donors who regard it warily. National security hawks have criticized its neoisolationism while business conservatives are worried that the movement may be prone to protectionism as evidenced by its anti-China rhetoric.
Perry, now governor of Texas, may be the safest of Tea Party candidates as far as centrist Republicans are concerned. His economic policy has been largely pro-business instead of pro-market and he advocates a more activist foreign policy than the other contenders.
The governor, who was latest to join the primary race, has touted his record as a jobs creator in Texas which added some 260,000 jobs during the past two years when the rest of the nation was suffering high unemployment. Perry claims that his state’s light tax regime and regulatory predictability are responsible for its extraordinary success but critics have pointed out that Texas profited disproportionately from a spike in oil prices while Texans lag behind in terms of education and wages compared to most other Americans.
Perry nevertheless praised his conservative administration as a “model” for the rest of the country during Wednesday’s debate and claimed that nearly two-thirds of the jobs created in Texas during his tenure were “above minimum wage.”
Romney’s jobs plans, which he unveiled on Tuesday, contains plenty of conservative orthodoxy, from lowering tax rates to repealing regulations enacted during the Obama Administration, including its health reform measure. When he was governor in Massachusetts however, it ranked 47th among states in job creation. According to Romney, it was worse when he took office. Moreover, he said, “we created more jobs in Massachusetts than this president has created in the entire country.”
Whereas the candidates appeared to have few differences on economic policy, they disagreed passionately on what should be done about Social Security, the public pension program that has to change if it is not to default on its obligations fifteen years from now.
Governor Perry has characterized Social Security as unconstitutional and a “Ponzi scheme.” Despite criticism from both Democrats and members of his own party, he insisted on Wednesday night that it was “a monstrous lie” for the program’s defenders to pretend that a publicly funded retirement option would be available to future generations. “Young people who are paying into that expect that program to be sound and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age — that is just a lie,” he said.
Whatever reforms are enacted, people currently on Social Security or near retirement should not be affected according to Perry. He intends to “transition” the program, presumably to a model that is largely privately funded.
Romney agreed that Social Security will soon run out of cash. Its trust fund is projected by its trustees to last until 2036. Beyond that date, the annual payroll taxes that pay for the program would only be sufficient to cover 75 percent of the retirement benefits that it is required to pay seniors. The program itself, though, Romney said, works. “Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.”