WASHINGTON - Whatever path Rick Perry had to a general election victory got narrower with each word the Texas governor spoke Wednesday night about Social Security. Perry declined the opportunity to back down from his book's claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme at the GOP primary debate Wednesday night, going so far as to criticize his former adviser and current agitator Karl Rove for calling his language provocative.
"Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. So I am not responsible for Karl anymore," he said.
Earlier, Perry had re-affirmed his belief that Social Security was based on a "monstrous lie" and that absent reforms -- like giving control of the program to the states -- it would not be there for future generations.
"The fact is, we have to be focused on how we are going to change this program," the Texas governor said. "Men and women receiving those benefits today ... don't need to worry about anything. The Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program and it is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme."
The debate moderators asked Mitt Romney for his response.
"You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who have lived on Social Security," the former Massachusetts governor said. "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security."
"Under no circumstances will I ever say ... it is a failure," he added. "It is working for millions of Americans and I will keep it working for millions of Americans."
Perry seemed to struggle a bit with what should be a well-rehearsed topic (it has been the focal point for coverage of his campaign in its early onset). He reminded his opponents that "we are not trying to pick fights here, we are about fixing things" before falling back on his initial talking points.
"You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme," he said, adding: "Maybe it is time to have some provocative language in this country."
Perry's response was as off politically as it was factually, said economist Dean Baker, of the liberal leaning Center for Economic Policy and Research. "With all due respect to the Governor, this is not true. The recommendations of the National Commission on Social Security Reform in 1983 led to the growth of a large surplus in Social Security. This surplus was used to buy bonds and now Social Security holds more than $2.6 trillion in government bonds," Baker e-mailed HuffPost, noting that the program's actuaries say it will pay full for the next quarter-century-plus. "Even if Congress never makes any changes to the program, Social Security will be able to pay slightly more than 80 percent of scheduled benefits from then on. This means, for example, that if your children -- both in their mid twenties -- were to retire at age 67 and do as well as you have in their working careers, they would receive $38,145 and $39,410 (in 2011 dollars) each, every year, for the rest of their lives. It is clearly inaccurate to say that this program will not exist for young people."
Roger Hickey of the progressive Campaign for America's Future previewed the Democratic strategy now available. "Gov. Perry’s remarks about Social Security show that as President, he would destroy the only retirement system that millions of Americans now depend upon -- and will in the future," he told HuffPost.
Below, a video of highlights from Wednesday night's debate.