Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is an ideological milestone that the emerging Republican front-runner is as skeptical of the New Deal as anyone in his position since the New Deal. During the 1936 election, Republican nominee Alf Landon called Social Security "unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted and wastefully financed." Now, according to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" that tells young workers a "monstrous lie." It is a "failure" that "we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now."

It is true that Barry Goldwater, during the 1964 campaign, said, "I think Social Security ought to be voluntary." But when his rival Nelson Rockefeller claimed this would be a "personal disaster to millions of senior citizens," Mr. Conservative backed down. Challenged on his proposal, Goldwater responded, "I don't know where you ever got the idea."

It is true that Ronald Reagan, during his 1976 campaign for president, contended, "Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal." But Reagan's presidency was an extended accommodation with the New Deal. Reagan used the economic crisis of his time -- inflation and economic stagnation -- not to repeal entitlements but to lower tax rates. Social Security spending rose dramatically during the Reagan years.

It is possible that Perry may fold like Goldwater or accommodate like Reagan, but his current challenge to the Roosevelt consensus is ambitious. "I happen to think," he said in an interview with Newsweek last fall, "that the Progressive movement was the beginning of the deterioration of our Constitution from the standpoint of it being abused and misused to do things that Congress wanted to do, and/or the Supreme Court wanted to implement. The New Deal was the launching pad for the Washington largesse as we know it today."

Perry's entitlement reform proposals remain unformed. But during the same interview, he praised three Texas counties that had opted out of the Social Security program in 1981 (under a loophole that existed at the time). "So I would suggest a legitimate conversation about let the states keep their money and implement the programs. That's one option that's out there."

If Perry presses his case against the New Deal, there are three possible outcomes:

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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