Why Social Security Is Still the Third Rail

09/14/2011 10:40 pm ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011
  • Martin Nolan Former reporter, Washington bureau chief, and editorial page editor for the Boston Globe

The candidate was angry, even fed up. "I am not exaggerating the folly of this legislation," he said. "The saving it forces on our workers is a cruel hoax."

Kansas Gov. Alfred Landon, his party's nominee for president in 1936, was the first, but not the last, Republican to denounce Social Security. "This is the largest tax bill in history," he said in a campaign speech. "To call it 'social security' is a fraud on the workingman."

A "third rail" describes the self-frying fate awaiting a politician who seeks to mess with a popular government program. The governor did not use this cliche; few subway lines crisscross the Sunflower State. But three of Landon's successors as standard-bearers were nominated as New Yorkers. Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower kept their mitts off the third rail of Social Security.

In 1964, the party nominated a Stetson-wearing son of the Southwest, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, a man who liked to muse aloud about public policy.

In official statements about older Americans, Landon and Goldwater were alike. "I believe that, as a nation, we can afford old-age pensions," Landon said in 1936. "I believe in them as a matter of social justice." Goldwater's 1964 official campaign statement said "I favor a sound Social Security system and I want to see it strengthened. I want to see every participant receive all the benefits this system provides."

Give Rick Perry credit. The Texas governor, now running for president, did not pussyfoot, go namby-pamby or shilly-shally on Social Security. He went for the full Ponzi, calling Social Security a swindle.

If Perry had read Mitchell Zuckoff's 2005 book, Ponzi's Scheme, he would not have made the comparison. Congress must change age limits and make cost-of-living adjustments, but 60 million Americans on Social Security and millions more who have received SS payments since 1940 don't think they've been swindled.

In the most recent Republican debate, Perry said he wanted "a conversation." That's usually when candidates get into trouble. On Jan. 6, 1964, in Concord, N.H., Barry Goldwater stood in the campaign spotlight and answered a question about the program, saying, "I would like to suggest one change, that Social Security be made voluntary, that if a person can provide better for himself, let him do it."

A voter need not be an insurance actuary to figure out that if young folks opt out of the system, the system soon collapses. So how to preserve such a system? The answer is a word most Republicans hate to hear: a mandate. "Compulsory saving," Landon said in 1936, is "why I called this law unjust and stupidly drafted."

Perry is a critic, but he has talked himself into his own mandate, the need to grasp the situation firmly. He may find that a third rail can sting, almost like an electric chair.