WASHINGTON –- If you listened closely to Rick Perry's aides, it was possible to gather some clues Wednesday night as to what what the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate may propose to do about Social Security.
Perry's top campaign adviser Dave Carney, speaking to reporters after the presidential primary debate at the Reagan library in California, described a three-tiered approach to reform.
"We will have a real longer discussion about this," Carney began, before outlining the first phase, "protecting those that are on Social Security, and those who are about to be in Social Security."
"And then there's younger people … who are paying into the system, but there needs to be some reforms there," Carney continued. "And then [for] younger people who are just getting into the system, you need to have a whole series of options."
"The system is broken, and you have to fix it," Carney said.
As for whether Perry advocated transferring the power to administer Social Security from the federal government to state or local governments, Carney said that would only apply to government employees.
"[In] the 80's, local governments and state governments were allowed to opt out for their employees and retirees," he said. "That may be an option, with public employees."
"States won't run it for citizens, for non-employees. I don't think that's what he's talking about," Carney added.
Carney gave no further details and was prickly when asked when the Perry campaign will release a full proposal. But his remarks paint in broad strokes a plan that maintains the program for current seniors and those approaching retirement –- following the blueprint of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) plan for Medicare -– combined with a mix of moderate reforms for those between the ages of 18 and 50 and a complete overhaul for those not yet in the system.
It's the overhaul portion of the plan that has landed Perry in some hot water, for three reasons. First, Perry has not given very much detail about how, specifically, he plans to alter the program. Second, he has been put on the defensive about the few specifics he has provided. And third, efforts by his communications team to respond to criticisms have been inconsistent and unclear.
In his 2010 book "Fed Up," Perry raised the prospect of Social Security being handled by local governments when he cited the example of three Texas counties that opted out of the system in 1981 and 1982.
"Before the government padlocked the door in 1983, municipal governments were allowed to opt out of the system. Fittingly, three Texas counties – Galveston, Matagorda, and Brazoria – did so. In 1981, Galveston county employees, for example, voted 78 percent to 22 percent to leave Social Security for a private option. Employees in those private plans, having exercised their liberty at Washington's sufferance, are reaping the benefits," Perry wrote. "By any measure, Social Security is a failure."
Perry predicted a few sentences later: "Now, if you say Social Security is a failure, as I have just done, you will inherit the wind of political scorn."
Indeed, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- who was the frontrunner until Perry entered the race -- has gone for Perry's jugular, painting the Texan as wanting to "end" or "abolish" Social Security. Perry could have countered that charge by saying Romney was mischaracterizing his position. But he and his staff have been slow to do so, raising questions about how exactly Perry wants to deal with the program.
Wednesday night, a squad of Romney's advisers remonstrated against Perry's position in the post-debate "spin room." Romney aide Stuart Stevens, who was surrounded by reporters for the better part of an hour, said Perry was "morally wrong" to take the position he has. Meanwhile, members of Perry's brain trust stood mere feet away, enveloped by other clusters of press. Toward the end of the night, The Huffington Post caught Perry communications director Ray Sullivan alone and pressed him for a yes or no answer on whether the Romney camp was misrepresenting Perry by saying he wanted to do away with Social Security.
Sullivan was not willing to give a definitive answer. It was not until late Thursday that Perry made his first comment in response to the accusation.
"I'd say that's misinformation," he said.
And while Carney's comments about limiting state involvement to government employees may reflect the candidate's thinking, especially given Carney's longstanding relationship with Perry, Perry and his staff have by and large refused to elaborate on the issue. Their favorite response when asked about the topic: "Read the book."
Perry staffers gave some details about the state option to the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, but that only served to raise more questions about whether the campaign has thought through its position on the issue or if aides are just making things up as they go along.
In addition, staffers have continued to make comments that suggest Perry wants to get rid of the current system for at least some Americans.
"I think he's been clear that those who are on Social Security now, it's not going to be scrapped," said Perry's campaign manager, Rob Johnson. "We've got to start the conversation for the younger generation so that there is a program for them."
It may be true that many Republican primary voters agree that Social Security should be completely reshaped, especially for younger Americans. In fact, Romney himself has discussed allowing workers to put money into private accounts instead of Social Security accounts, as has Perry. But the longer Perry waits to present his own plan, the more time Romney has to raise questions about his intentions and his preparedness to address such a weighty issue.
On Thursday, Romney used Social Security to argue that Perry is not the GOP's best candidate to run against President Obama in the general election.
"If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we would be obliterated as a party," Romney said on Sean Hannity's radio program.
Carney said Wednesday that Perry was in no rush to go into detail.
"The campaign's just begun," he said. "We'll have a long discussion about this."
But that conversation will ratchet up another notch soon. The next primary debate is scheduled for Monday. It will be held in Tampa, Florida, where a large percentage of the population is made up of retirees who receive Social Security benefits.
This story has been updated.
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