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Matthew Dowd Headshot

Is Rick Perry the Br'er Rabbit of the Republican Field?

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Why do Republican Gov. Rick Perry's recent comments about Social Security remind me of his remarks a few years back about Texas possibly seceding from the Union? Perry recently went on a wholesale attack against the Social Security system, saying it's completely broken, a failure, and a lie to younger people. They were pretty harsh and pointed words, and pundits, including top GOP strategist Karl Rove, have roundly panned the Texan for his comments. Let me tell you where the Washington, D.C., punditocracy just might be off base and misunderstanding the power of his message.

In Perry's primary race against popular Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010, he raised the possibility of Texas seceding as part of his message that the federal government was busted and people in Washington were disconnected from the lives of average Americans. Many folks criticized his remarks, and I got call after call from pundits and reporters saying that Perry was toast. I cautioned my callers about underestimating the anti-federal-government sentiment he had tapped into, and I shared my view that his secession comments would in the end help him in his race. Perry went on to win in a landslide against Hutchison -- and at the same time, beating much of the Republican establishment, including Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney. The Senate primary race in Texas was a factor in the budding tea party movement, and Perry was one of the first elected officials to tap into the energy and power of that movement.

Today, Perry's comments on Social Security feel a lot like that. Yes, he will have to clean up his language a bit -- he has been calling the program a "Ponzi scheme" -- but his message underscoring how broken the system is and how national leaders are not being honest with the American public will resonate with voters, especially Republican primary voters and caucus participants. Whether it was intentional or not (and sometimes in politics, the best developments are unplanned and unscripted), Perry is voicing a concern that many Republicans and independents share. And it's a concern that many 20-year-olds also share.

I have three sons in their 20s, and not one of them thinks he is going to receive Social Security when he's older. They think it is just another tax they pay, and that it won't be around when they retire. And they believe that our leaders are not being honest about that fact when Social Security is discussed.

I don't have a crystal ball about how this will all turn out for Perry, but it doesn't surprise me that, going into Monday night's debate in Florida, the latest poll from CNN this morning shows him continuing to surge ahead in the race for the Republican nomination, even in the aftermath of his Social Security remarks and the subsequent criticism of them. And I am not advocating on behalf of Perry or suggesting that Social Security be eliminated. I am just pointing out that the assumption his remarks will hurt him may be inaccurate. Many of the same folks who are making the predictions were also saying in 2010 that he would not survive his remarks on Texas secession.

If I were advising Perry, I would be less worried about how he handles the wildfire created by his Social Security comments and more worried about how he handles the actual wildfires in Texas, because that could affect his political prospects far more negatively. In the latter case, he has to show he can govern effectively in a crisis created by a natural disaster. In the former, he is demonstrating that he will govern effectively in a fiscal crisis.

If I were advising his debate opponents, I would say, "Be very careful if and how you attack Perry on Social Security." Though he did it a bit awkwardly, Perry has underlined a huge concern that strikes many Republicans as authentic and true. Those are two values in great demand in this election cycle. It could be like the old story of Br'er Rabbit. Perry says, "Oh please, please, don't throw me in the briar patch." And in the end, he comes out ahead, while the Washington pundits and campaign operatives come away shaking their heads asking, "How did that happen?"

Cross-posted from National Journal.

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