Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Presidential Leadership, Ronald Reagan, and Chris Christie

The media are buzzing around like bumblebees in springtime, floating from flower to flower as we prepare for the next presidential election.  Many media elites have fawned over Sarah Palin or Mitt Romney for much of the year while speculating about other possible entrants in the GOP field.  When Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially threw his hat in the ring in August, the media painted a bullseye on his back, as did his fellow candidates when early polls showed him leading the pack.  After a little more than six weeks of scrutinizing his record and three relatively miserable debate performances, the media are looking elsewhere for the new savior of the GOP.  Apparently, so are many of the movers and shakers in the Republican Party as well as the party rank and file.  The new darling of the media and the party seems to be New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  Why?  One clear reason is because he is an unknown quantity.  He has very little baggage since he has been governor of NJ for only about 21 months.  He is also a decent speaker, appeals to the Reagan wing of the party, and is not an ideologue.  He believes in solving problems rather than kicking the can down the road.  He believes that leaders do not look to the polls to figure out what to do.  Leaders change the polls by persuading the people that their proposals are the right way to solve a problem.  Leaders don't preclude opposition ideas, they incorporate them into a solution that can garner bipartisan support and address the problem.

In many ways, I think, that attitude is lacking in many of our elected officials today.  They are so self-centered and focused on preserving their careers by getting reelected that they fail to be frank with their constituents.  Rather then educating the people about the right course of action they fall back on ideological conviction, even when that conviction will lead to disaster.

There are two primary theories regarding the role of the representative and what his function ought to be in a democracy.  The first argues that elected officials are delegates sent to enact the people's will, whatever that means.  How does one discern the people's will?  Exactly which people are we referring to?  Is it even possible to determine what the will of the people truly is?  Is it the fraction of the people who are motivated enough to get off their couches and turn off X-Factor and go vote?  Is it the silent majority who don't vote?  Is it the people who contribute money to political campaigns?  Is it the tiny core of activists in each party that are not representative of the party as a whole?  The delegate model of representation requires the elected official to know what this will is and to act accordingly or suffer the consequences.  This is the model preferred by the Tea-Party.

The second model of representation is that popularized by the conservative Edmund Burke in the 18th century.  We call it the trustee model.  Burke argued that the representative is not merely the instrument of the people sent forth to do their will.  Rather, the representative was sent forth to use all the talent and education he possessed to deliberate over every course of action and choose the one he thought best for the nation, though it might conflict with the immediate interests of his local constituency.  It was, Burke surmised, the job of the representative to persuade the people that his course of action was the right one.  This was the leadership style of Ronald Reagan and, I think, why historians rank him among the top 10 presidents in history.  It is also what made Franklin Roosevelt a great leader.  NJ Governor Chris Christie appears to be a Burkean as well.  Perhaps it will one day lead him to be our next great president.  If you haven't watched it yet, the following link is to the speech he delivered at the Ronald Reagan Library on September 27, 2011.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Pox On All Your Polls!

We are a nation obsessed with polls and surveys.  Every organization wants to know how you feel about virtually everything these days.  I stay in a hotel and within a day or two a survey shows up in my email box asking me to evaluate my stay. I go out to eat and there it is on the table, the ubiquitous survey to rate my food, my waitress, the price, the atmosphere, yada, yada, yada.  There are internet survey companies that specialize in product marketing or political polling for clients.  Then there are the national organizations like Gallup and Zogby and others.  You can even post a poll on Facebook for all your 'friends' to take.  I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for a coffee Monday and my receipt had a link to a survey promising a free donut if I just completed the poll within three days!  Of course, I'd have to drive 50 miles round trip to get my free donut.  Even I'm not immune to the polling craze.  As part of my summer research project I developed a survey on political attitudes that I'm putting the finishing touches on now so it can be sent out, hopefully nationwide with a little help from my friends (cue the Beatles music here...).

Which brings me to my main point:  Everywhere we turn these days we are inundated with news about a new poll or survey telling us what we think, usually about politics and our elected leaders.  Congress approval ratings hit new low, one poll tells us.  Another survey has Sarah Palin within 5 points of President Obama.  The next one shows Romney or Perry in a dead heat with the president.  The latest polls are trumpeting the fall of the house of Obama.  Do the polls mean anything?  Not much.  Is Obama's approval falling through the floor?  Not really. But the media is obsessed with the polls nearly 14 months before the next election and 4 months before the first votes are cast in Iowa.  Just for fun I thought I'd take a look at recent presidents and their poll numbers.  Here's what I found.

President Obama Approval Ratings Chart
 President George W. Bush Approval Ratings Chart
 President Clinton Approval Ratings Chart
 President George H.W. Bush Approval Ratings Chart
 President Reagan Approval Ratings Chart
 What's the point, you ask?  Simply that the media narrative doesn't fit the polls.  If we look at the past five presidents and their poll numbers over their terms we see a lot of fluctuation, usually from a high point early in their presidency (the honeymoon) to a low point just after the midterm election followed by a subsequent rise, except in the case of George W. Bush who just kept declining from his post 9/11 high point.  What is most interesting about the Obama numbers isn't that he sits around 42% in the most recent Gallup Poll, though one poll found the number as low as 39 percent, but that his numbers have been remarkably stable for nearly 18 months.  Disapproval has risen a bit as one would expect in the wake of the repeated cave-ins to the GOP (Republicans won't like Obama no matter what he does so getting the disapproval rate below 40% is nearly impossible, though, yes, a recent poll suggests that even Republican voters support the key elements of Obama's job plan) as liberals express some disapproval. 

The bottom line is really that his poll numbers have been stable for quite awhile.  No massive swings in popularity or disapproval, just stability.  This indicates that those who don't like the president have solidified in their opposition and those who do have solidified in their support.  Barring an economic disaster or an unforeseen economic boom, President Obama will be facing reelection in 14 months with very similar numbers.  That's not great news for the president but neither is it the knell of death.

**Charts can be found at**

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mr. Turner Goes to Washington (briefly)

Yesterday voters went to the polls in two special elections to fill vacant seats in the House of Representatives.  Republicans won both seats, one in disgraced Democrat Anthony Weiner's old district, NY-9, which is largely Democratic, though much more conservatively so than thought.  Political analyst Charlie Cook rates the district Partisan Voting Index a D +5, which means that the Democratic nominee for president in the last two presidential elections exceeded his party's national average (51.3%) by about 5 points.  Thus, the Democratic candidate for the House is assumed to have approximately a 5 point advantage in the district.  In practice, the advantage may be larger or smaller due to incumbency and a host of other variables.  The other seat up for grabs yesterday was NV-2, a seat vacated by Dean Heller when he was appointed to replace the scandal plagued Republican Senator John Ensign.  Cook rates the district R+5, largely on the strength of President Bush's 16 point win in the district in 2004.  President Obama and John McCain split the district in 2008, even though it remains a Republican stronghold.

The question is whether the outcome matters for 2012?  The answer is a resounding no, though Republicans and the media are sure to say otherwise (see here, and here).  The victory for Republicans is no more (or less) important than the Democratic takeover of NY-26, a district with a rating of R+6, last May, with one exception:  NY is slated to lose two house seats as a result of reapportionment from the 2010 Census.  One of those is likely to be NY-9, as it will likely be carved up to meet the reapportionment requirements established by the constitution.  Since the Democrats and Republicans share power in the redistricting process in NY, it would not surprise me to see NY-26 become the other casualty...thus effectively eliminating the party swap that occurred in NY this year.

Another reason that the results of many special elections don't matter is because they are notoriously low turnout affairs.  Few people pay attention to the contest and even fewer of those go to the polls.  NY-9 is a low turnout district as it is.  In 2010, Democrat Anthony Weiner coasted to reelection by 21 points over Bob Turner, who won the seat in the special election yesterday.  Yet, only 110,000 citizens bothered to vote in a district of 660,000 people (voting age population is about 450,000), which is less than 1 in 4 voters.  I expect turnout last night was even lower, though full results are not yet available.

In the end, the election doesn't matter.  NY-9 is a district that has been trending Republican since 2000 and will likely be sliced and diced during redistricting.  That means the newly elected Republican Bob Turner will have to run for reelection next year in a heavily Democratic district that will likely be far more liberal than the current 9th district.  Enjoy your time in Congress, Mr. Turner.  It probably won't last long. 

**NOTE: An earlier version of this post erroneously stated the Democrats took over NY-23 in January. It has been fixed to reflect the fact that it was NY-26 and the election was in May.**

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

President Obama's 'Jobs' Bill & The CNN/Tea-Party Debate

President Obama unveiled his more than $450 billion 'jobs' bill yesterday and asked Congress to pass it immediately.  While it would no doubt spur some temporary economic growth and add to the nation's GDP it is likely to have very little lasting impact, particularly if paid for by increased spending cuts elsewhere.  The big winners if the package were to pass would be construction workers, states and local governments that are currently laying off workers, and taxpayers making less than $106,000 a year as they would not see the payroll tax return to 6.2% next year.  Businesses would also realize a 33% savings in their payroll tax bill for a year.  While the president thinks that would spur hiring, I think he's wrong.  Businesses have been insanely profitable since the crash in 2008 but they aren't hiring new workers very quickly.  Republicans argue that the health care reform passed in 2010 is responsible.  They may have a point for some very small businesses hovering right around the 50 employee mark.  But these businesses are far from the majority of businesses in America. 

No, the real problem for economic growth has been weak demand, both at home and abroad for more than three years.  Demand at home has been weak since 2008 due to the bursting of the housing bubble and the reluctance/inability of many Americans to buy on credit.  Add to that the decline in real wages for the median worker and you have a double edged sword driven deep into the heart of the American economy.  Consider the lack of demand for American products overseas and you have a dagger stuck in America's back.  Democrats have no answer to solving this problem other than turning to Keynesian style stimulus, which is exactly what the president has proposed.  Keynesian stimulus has been vindicated time and time again during normal economic downturns, Republican lies not withstanding.  But this downturn is different because it resulted from a huge decline in demand when the housing bubble burst, overextended households, stagnant wages, and irresponsible greed on the part of the banking and mortgage industry.  Until we deal with all four of those issues any stimulus package is likely to have a very limited and temporary effect.  For what we ought to do I urge you to read Freefall by Noble Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. 

Which brings me to the CNN/Tea-Party debate.

Let me start by saying I hate these dog and pony shows.  CNN introduced the Republican candidates as though they were entering a boxing ring.  My favorite by far had to be when Herman Cain was announced as 'The Businessman.'  After all the candidates were on stage and had waved to the audience, the national anthem was performed.  Only Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney sang along so I wonder whether the others even knew the words.  LOL. 

Once the theatrics ended and the debate began in earnest, Governor Perry was attacked furiously from all sides.  He defended himself well during the first half hour but lost it after that.  Not that it will matter because he was in the midst of a friendly crowd.  Bachmann and Santorum scored some points by attacking Perry on his executive order forcing 12 year old girls to receive the HPV vaccine, while Ron Paul attacked Perry for raising taxes, and Romney went after Perry's categorization of Social Security as a 'ponzi scheme.'  When the smoke cleared Perry was still standing, though he lost some points when he spoke truthfully about the futility of trying to build a 2000 mile long fence or wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. 

All told, I think Perry had a better night than in his first debate.  Romney and Huntsman still looked and sounded like the only true presidential candidates out there while the others pandered for support.  In the end, however, it won't really matter, because nobody was watching this dog and pony show except the political junkies like me, and the GOP party activists.  None of the candidates offered real, workable solutions to the economic crisis at hand, preferring instead to fall back on supply side arguments about tax cuts and job creators that have been thoroughly refuted by empirical research time and time again.  By all accounts it seems the race is a two man contest.  Romney and Perry, Perry and Romney.  The lead will likely change hands a few times before these horses reach the finish line in Tampa, FL next summer.

Next event:  The Fox News GOP debate Thursday Sept. 22.  Softball question time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Political Misperceptions and the Resistance to New Information

One of the things political scientists have understood for quite a long time is that it is difficult to change people's minds regarding things about which they are passionate.  Take, for example, the avid sports fan who believes his team is the best in the league.  When the team fails to live up to that billing on the field or court, the passionate fan seeks to shift the blame away from his team and onto the referees, injuries, the manager, a player she doesn't like, or a multitude of other factors having to do with anything other than the admittance that the team just isn't very good.  Some might call this faith in one's team a form of a worldview and acknowledging that part of that view is wrong could create cracks in the rest of the foundation.  So our passionate fan lives in denial, insisting that 'but for ...' the team would have won it all.  A similar thing happens in politics with political presuppositions.  Before long, facts don't matter, what becomes important is how strongly we hold to our worldview (and reject anything that contradicts it, even if true). 

Political Scientist Larry Zaller argues that in order for people to change their views about anything (right or wrong), three things must occur.  First, they must be exposed to the new information.  This is a large problem when it comes to political viewpoints because while most people have one they aren't very attentive to politics.  It also has become a problem due to the self-selection problem.  In today's world there is a wealth of (dis)information available to anyone who seeks it, and sometimes to those who don't.  Many people simply gravitate toward sources that confirm their preexisting worldview.  Conservatives flock to Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and Rush Limbaugh.  Liberals head for MSNBC, the Daily Kos, and NPR.  Thus, rarely are partisans exposed to new or disagreeable information.  The second step, Zaller argues, is reception.  Not only must an individual be exposed to new information, she must also receive that information.  Reception indicates a willingness (and ability) to hear and think about new or conflicting information.  Once the information has been received the individual moves to the third stage and either accepts or rejects the new information.  Many people never make it past step one let alone get to step three.  All three steps are necessary to effect an attitude change in a person.  The fact that such a large percentage of the population never experiences these three steps leads political scientists to doubt the claims of many partisans about media effects on attitudes. 

Let's go back to our passionate sports fan to see how this works.  Our fan loves the Boston Red Sox and thinks they are the best team in baseball.  He either listens to all the games on WEEI or watches them on NESN and hears the home team announcers reinforcing his views again and again.  Suppose one day both stations are off the air and our fan has to listen to the game feed from the opposing team, the Phillies.  Their announcers rave about how great the pitching is, the offense and defense, and how the Phils will win it all.  Our fan has been exposed to conflicting information.  He must either receive that new information or dismiss it as the ravings of the opponents fans.  If he thinks about it and starts to study the stats, he has received the info.  Finally, our fan must either accept what the others are saying and conclude that he was wrong about the Red Sox or he must reject it on the basis of his investigation.  Like most political partisans, our fan probably never goes beyond the first step. 

Getting back to the point, some recent research in political science has asked why it is so difficult to dislodge people from errant beliefs.  Brendan Nyhan has done some excellent work in this area.  The following is the abstract of his latest manuscript:

"People often resist information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. This disconfirmation bias is a particular problem in the context of political misperceptions, which are widespread and frequently difficult to correct. In this paper, we examine two different hypotheses about the prevalence of misinformation. First, people tend to resist unwelcome information because it is threatening to their worldview or self-concept. Drawing from social psychology research, we test whether affirming individuals' self-worth and thereby buttressing them against this threat can make them more willing to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Second, corrective information is often presented in an ineffective manner. We therefore also examine whether graphical corrections may be more effective than text at reducing counter-arguing by individuals inclined to resist counter-attitudinal information. Results from three experiments show that self-affirmation substantially reduces reported misperceptions among those most likely to hold them, suggesting that people cling to false beliefs in part because giving them up would threaten their sense of self. Graphical corrections are also found to successfully reduce incorrect beliefs among potentially resistant subjects and to perform better than an equivalent textual correction. However, contrary to previous research, affirmed subjects rarely differ from unaffirmed subjects in their willingness to accept new counter-attitudinal information."
 If you're interested, check out his blog and download the paper.  Next up...President Obama's jobs speech and the CNN/Tea-Party debate in Tampa.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Politico/NBC News Republican Debate at the Reagan Library

The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, CA was the host of the first of several Republican debates as we wrap up the 'invisible primary' season in preparation for actual voting beginning early in 2012.  There are at least two more debates scheduled this month with a few more in October and November as the candidates try to improve their support among Republican voters before the primaries. 

The Reagan Library is situated on a bluff overlooking Simi Valley and is a stunningly beautiful facility. I've had the pleasure of visiting the library on two occasions and eagerly look forward to another visit when I return to California.  It is a tranquil place that opens itself to much reflection in the midst of our ever busier lives and beckons one back to a time when things were a bit simpler, or at least it seems that way.  One of my favorite exhibits is the replica of the Oval Office replete with a jar of Jelly Belly jelly beans on the president's desk.  Call me nostalgic.  Whatever. 

Last evening at the library eight GOP hopefuls gathered for a debate sponsored by Politico and NBC News that was televised on MSNBC.  It marked the first debate for the Republicans since the entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the race in mid-August.  His announcement catapulted him into the lead in all major polls taken since August 15th so it was highly anticipated that the media and the other contenders on the stage would be gunning for him.  We were not disappointed.  I won't bother to recap the entire debate as you can read about it here, here, and here.  I will, however, endeavor to give you my thoughts on how each candidate performed.  I'll begin with the frontrunner, Governor Perry.

Texas Governor Rick Perry:  Perry has come out swinging in the race for the GOP nod and the right to face off with President Obama next fall.  I want to like Rick Perry, even if there is little chance I'd ever vote for him.  But I can't.  In his first opportunity on the national stage I was listening for solid policy proposals, intelligent discussion of issues, ideas for turning around an educational system in crisis, and so on.  I heard none of that.  What I did hear is Governor Perry pandering to the rabid right wing of his party, talking about Social Security as a ponzi scheme and a monstrous lie.  I heard him call the president of the United States a liar and bumble a question about climate science with an answer about how the 'science isn't settled' yet and how irresponsible it would be to impose environmental regulations on polluters when only 98% of climate scientists agree that man made pollution is contributing to climate change.  I heard him dodge questions about the failure of Texas education system (test scores have improved because the tests have been made easier, not because students are learning!) and talk about how the $4 billion cut in education was 'responsible.'  I have a feeling many educators in Texas might disagree.  Overall, I think Perry helped his standing with the hard right but probably lost the moderates in the party and many independents. 

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney:  Romney has been sliding in the polls since Perry entered the race.  He needed to take on Perry directly in last night's debate and he did just that.  The two men locked horns and challenged each other on jobs creation, social security, and a few other issues.  In each case, Romney displayed the acumen and vocabulary of a serious contender for the presidency.  Most of Romney's dialogue was on message with a few jabs here and there at Perry, especially on the social security issue when he stressed that any Republican nominee who wants to win the presidency must be committed to saving what he called a successful system for millions of senior Americans.  Romney has a clear vision about what it will take to win Florida for a Republican nominee.  Anyone committed to the destruction of the program has no chance in Florida due to it's huge senior population.  The same can be said about Nevada and, to a lesser extent, Arizona.  In terms of winning the debate, Romney came out clearly ahead and appeared the most presidential and the most like Ronald Reagan, a pragmatic conservative. 

Texas Congressman Ron Paul:  Paul seemed some what off his game last night and really looked much more like America's cranky uncle than a serious presidential contender.  Of course, he wasn't given all that much time to speak as it is now clear that the media establishment believes the race for the GOP nomination is down to the top two candidates.  Paul's temper came through when he chastised Brian Williams for portraying libertarians as lacking compassion when Williams mentioned Lyndon Johnson's commitment to provide nutritious school lunches for children after seeing some children in Texas come to school with distended stomachs.  Overall, Paul looked much more like a candidate whose star has faded than one who is on the rise. 

Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann:  Talk about a meteoric fall from grace!  Less than a month after becoming the media darling by winning the Ames Straw Poll she has sunk to 4th place in the polls, shaken up the staff of her campaign, and promised to lower gas prices to $2 a gallon if elected president.  Bachmann is clearly out of her league and exemplifies all the criticism often dished out to the tea-party.  Like Paul, her face time has diminished as Perry's has increased.  It is far more difficult finding a path to the nomination for Ms. Bachmann today than it was just a month ago. 

Former Senator Rick Santorum:  Steady and smooth as he always is but simply lacking in appeal to anyone other than social conservatives.  Sure, he's probably a fiscal conservative as well but he just isn't electable on the national scene.  His claim that nobody worked harder than he did on poverty issues in the U.S. Senate and his claim that the 1996 welfare reform wasn't about spending cuts and punishing the poor was laughable.  I'm not even sure he believes that. 

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich:  Perhaps the smartest man on the stage but also the one with the loosest tongue.  Gingrich frequently invoked Ronald Reagan and how he worked with Reagan in the 1980's but apart from that had little to say substantively.  He did praise President Obama's 'Race to the top' initiative for providing education funds to innovative schools but then returned to the traditional 'school choice' language, which is really just conservative code for busting the strength of teachers unions.  Gingrich did not hurt himself but neither did he help himself.  He's just there as a sideshow now. 

Pizza Mogul Herman Cain:  Why is he here?  He has no chance of winning the nomination no matter what he says.  The Republican Party today is a regional party that is very strong in the old confederacy and virtually nowhere else.  And the confederacy simply isn't ready to support an African-American candidate, regardless of party.  Cain is entertaining to listen to and may have had the best line of the night in reference to his 'ni-yun, ni-yun, ni-yun' plan to cut corporate taxes, income taxes, and impose a national sales tax rate of 9% when he said 'if 10% is good enough for God then 9% should be good enough for the government.'  Ok, but he won't win anyway. 

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman:  Definitely the George H.W. Bush wing of the party candidate.  He is smart and articulate like Romney, unafraid to disagree with the anti-science crowd, and willing to call many in his party 'cranks', though he shied away when given a direct opportunity to name one on the stage...though he clearly eyeballed Rick Perry and Ron Paul.  Huntsman's problem isn't that he's not a smart guy or likable.  It is that he is too smart and too pragmatic for today's Republican Party.  If this were still the party of Ronald Reagan, Huntsman would wipe the floor with the other seven candidates.  It isn't and because of that Huntsman can't gain any traction with prospective GOP voters, though I'd be willing to bet if he did he would become Barack Obama's biggest nightmare.  Huntsman helped himself immensely with his performance last night and if the GOP takes a moderate turn in the near future, he could be a star for the party.  As long as the party remains well to the right of Reagan, Huntsman has no hope.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Constitutional Convention, Week 1

This update is a little late following the long holiday weekend and the torrential downpours from Tropical Storm Lee (we got 9.5 inches of rain, no flooding thankfully). 

The honors students met in their constitutional committees for the first time last Friday and here are the results of their initial discussions:

Executive Committee Proposals:
  • Eliminate the Electoral College or change to 1 vote per state
  • Perhaps establish a ratio vote based upon popular vote
  • Give President the title of Commander in Chief but reserve role of military strategy for Generals
Legislative Committee Proposals:
  • Eliminate personal income taxes
  • Allow corporate income taxes
  • House of Representatives Districts not bound by state lines
  • Permanent residence in district and community service required
  • Term limits (Two 6 year terms discussed for Senate?)
  • Reduction in pay--make service rather than wealth the incentive
  • No travel on private aircraft permitted
  • No representation for territories
Judiciary Committee Proposals:
  • Supreme Court terms of 10 years, may serve 2 terms
  • Justices should be elected but president will appoint two members 
  • Chief Justice elected from peers
  • No final authority, may be overruled (how-unstated)
  • Decisions binding only on lower courts
  • Supreme Court terms of 18 years with 1 elected every 2 years (no 2nd term)
  • May serve between age 25 and 65 and must retire after reaching age 65 (may complete term)
  • Court may override Congress' decision to declare war
  • Eliminate death penalty
  • Enhance state sovereignty
  • Supreme Court holds trial if Congress impeaches the president
The simulation is off to a good start and lots of ideas are being tossed out.  We'll see how many make the final cut when the convention decides on a final constitution.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

The (premature) Death of the Roosevelt Consensus

Michael Gerson penned a column for the Washington Post yesterday asking a very important question:  Has mainstream American thinking about entitlement programs and government spending changed in the past few years?  The answer he gives is more or less a big perhaps.  Gerson is an unabashed conservative who served as a speechwriter and advisor to President George W. Bush so it should not be surprising he would write such a column trumpeting Gov. Perry's opposition to the New Deal and its legacy program, Social Security.  Eradicating Social Security has always been a goal of staunch conservatives, primarily because it is an example of liberal government successfully addressing a major societal problem (senior poverty).  Most rational conservatives understand that Social Security has lifted the standard of living for many seniors and disabled people in America, thus making the whole of society better off.  These rational conservatives, such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan (who ensured the solvency of the program through 2035 with reforms in the 1980's) and Dwight Eisenhower who cautioned his fellow Republicans that any attack on Social Security will doom the party to minority status permanently.  Yet, there are still those who cling to the notion that it is a 'ponzi' scheme and an unjust transfer of wealth from workers to retirees (really YOU know anybody who is getting rich on Social Security?).  It seems Rick Perry has forgotten Eisenhower's warning.

Gerson goes on to quote Perry as follows:

“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.”
The Progressive movement that brought about things like the end of legalized segregation, discrimination on the basis of race, guaranteed the right to vote for African-Americans, protected defendants from overwhelming state power in criminal trials, reduced the poverty rate, improved educational standards for all Americans, electrified much of the rural south, and guaranteed access to medical care for our senior citizens is now responsible for 'the deterioration of our constitution' according to Mr. Perry.  Does he really want to return to pre-New Deal America?  An America where two classes of people existed, the very rich and the very poor.  There was no 'middle class' to speak of in 1933.  It, too, was created largely by the 'Progressive movement' Governor Perry disdains so much.  And the creation of that middle class, not the rugged individualism Perry touts, is what created the 'American Century' and led the United States to become the most powerful nation on earth.  
Gerson then states three possible outcomes of Perry's rhetorical attack on the New Deal:
  • Republican primary voters will question his electability and turn towards Romney
  • Republicans will embrace the message and alienate enough voters to reelect Obama
  • Perry and the Republicans have tapped into an ideological sea change and will lead the nation out of the 70 long years of darkness imposed by radical liberalism
From Gerson's analysis of the possibilities it is clear he thinks the third is the more likely, though he makes his case using selective information, none of which he is specific about.  Instead he asks, "Will America need to break decisively from the European social model to avoid Europe’s economic fate?" without providing even the slightest detail about what the phrase 'Europe's economic fate' means.  The savvy reader will understand he speaks of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and perhaps the U.K. and the budget woes those countries have had in recent years.  He implies that those woes are a direct result of European social democracy, i.e., the welfare state, neglecting the fact that the whole world has been in the midst of an economic slowdown for nearly four years that was brought about by bad decisions by lenders, consumers, and the collapse of the housing market.  In the midst of this global recession many European nations have managed quite well, even running budget surpluses while still providing all the social welfare benefits promised.  See the chart here for more information.  Many will return to surpluses once the economy has fully recovered, if it is able to do so.  

In the end, it is a fallacious argument to attribute America (and the world's) debt problems to social programs.  Medicare and Social Security have both run a surplus for decades.  Due to uncontrolled inflation in health care costs the surplus for Medicare will likely run out by 2021, if not sooner.  Social Security currently has around $2.4 trillion in surplus and is expected to remain fully solvent through 2035, though reductions in the payroll tax designed to stimulate the economy may decrease that by a year or so.  Reforms are necessary.  Everyone agrees, liberals as well as rational conservatives.  
The real problem, which radical conservatives are loathe to admit, is that they (and many Democrats) have pursued unwise fiscal policy since 2001, enacted huge tax cuts while fighting two wars, created a Medicare prescription drug benefit without paying for it, and expanded the defense budget.  New spending coupled with tax cuts has created the problem, not the Progressive movement.  Get it right Governor.