During last night’s debate in Orlando, Fla., a state with a huge senior population that will play a crucial early role in next year’s primaries, Texas Gov. Rick Perry continued to retreat from the provocative comments about Social Security he made shortly after entering the race for the Republican nomination last month.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, continued to draw fire from Perry and the other six candidates on stage for his state’s health care plan, which served as the model for President Obama’s reform law enacted in 2010. Every candidate on stage vowed to sign a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, with Romney promising to grant every a state a waiver from its provisions the minute he entered office.
The two-hour talkathon, moderated by a panel of Fox News journalists who asked few hardball questions, broke little new ground. Instead, the growing field of candidates, joined by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (he’s the fifth current or former governor in or out of the race) spent most of the night attacking President Obama’s handling of jobs and the economy, health care, immigration, foreign policy and taxes.
Romney and Perry engaged in the sharpest exchange over the retirement issue, with Perry staging a full-scale retreat on Social Security, which represents over 90 percent of income for 35 percent of retirees. Instead of calling it a Ponzi scheme , Perry promised he wouldn’t end federal control of the program nor would he change benefits for current beneficiaries or people nearing retirement age.
“For those people who are on Social Security today, approaching Social Security, they have nothing to worry about,” he said. “We have made a solemn pledge.”
“That’s different than what you put in your book, and what you said six months ago,” shot back Romney. “You said the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business . . . You ought to find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
Perry also drew fire from Romney, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on immigration. They attacked the Texas program to give the children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition at state universities. Several called for building a 1,200-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, which Perry rejected as impractical.
“If you say that we shouldn’t educate children who have been brought there through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said in what might be a preview of the eventual campaign that will be engineered by his handlers should he win the nomination: the tough-talking Perry as compassionate conservative. The only other liberal comments of the night came from former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Kentucky Rep. Ron Paul, who is still running third in the polls. They both called for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Social conservatives in the audience got a chance to boo Perry when Bachmann renewed her condemnation of his brief effort in Texas to require 12-year-old girls to get a vaccine against the sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer.
But other than rehashing these ongoing debates over minor differences in the fine points of Republican orthodoxy, the debate represented a two-hour assault on Obama. When asked if the president was a socialist, everyone agreed. Romney tried to give the charge some nuance, by claiming the president “takes his political inspiration from Europe, and from the Socialist Democrats in Europe.”
It was a phrasing designed to please a conservative crowd. Political parties in Europe that are supported by labor unions, the poor, environmentalists, intellectuals, most of the university-educated population, left-of-center people in their societies, and, yes, socialists – that is, the equivalent of the Democratic Party in the U.S. – are called social democratic parties and their adherents are social democrats, not “socialist democrats.”