By Mike Dorf
If unemployment remains at or near its current levels a year from now, it's hard to imagine President Obama winning re-election, unless the Republicans nominate someone widely perceived to be a maniac, in which case Obama likely wins in a nonetheless disturbingly close election. In the Democrats' best-case-scenario, a year from now unemployment will be down to 8% or so and headed down further. Under those circumstances, the general election could well be highly competitive, unless the Republicans nominate a maniac, in which case Obama wins handily. So, let's proceed on the assumption that neither Rick Perry nor Mitt Romney is widely perceived as a maniac, and that none of the other Republicans currently running has a serious chance at the nomination. (I won't bother to defend those assumptions except to emphasize that I'm only assuming that they won't be perceived as maniacs; I'm not making any assumptions about whether they in fact are maniacs).
So, who is the more likely Republican nominee? Notwithstanding the recent Social Security kerfuffle, I think the answer is pretty clearly still Perry. Expect that for the duration of the Republican race, Romney and his supportive independent campaigners (E.g., Citizens to Save Social Security) will hammer out ads relentlessly showing Perry deriding Social Security as a Ponzi Scheme. If I were writing these ads for Romney, I'd target one set towards graying Republican voters fearful that Perry will actually cut their benefits and another set targeted at median Republicans warning that Perry's perceived extremism will alienate independents and thus give the election to Obama.
What's Perry's response? Yesterday, in both a USA Today op-ed and in debate, Perry tried to walk back his statements by claiming: 1) that he had no intention of changing benefit levels for people currently receiving social security benefits or nearing eligibility age; and 2) that he was simply trying to initiate a "frank, honest national conversation." These are excellent talking points, especially the second one, insofar as it tacitly draws a contrast with the picture of Romney as someone willing to say anything to get elected. As the old saying goes, sincerity is everything, and once you can learn to fake that, you've got it made.
Will it work for Perry? Probably. In the this clip from yesterday's debate, Perry comes off as more self-assured than Romney, although that may have a lot to do with the audience reaction. Of course, even if the Tea Party audience is to the right of the Republican electorate as a whole, that whole still favors Perry pretty clearly, at least for now.
What's Romney's play here? He could try to trap Perry the way he did last night. In his book, Perry says that Social Security is unconstitutional, and he has recently said that he stands by his book, so Perry must still think it's unconstitutional, which, in turn, means he must want to abolish it, so either Perry is lying when he says he stands by what he wrote in his book or he's lying when he says he wants to preserve Social Security. That's a pretty good debater's point for an audience of law students, but I doubt it will resonate, or even register, with the Republican electorate.
Romney thus has to go meta--arguing that whatever the straight-out merits of the Perry view of Social Security, general election voters will be scared by Perry, so Republicans should nominate Romney. And indeed, Romney has already made this meta-argument a central theme of his attack on Perry. So far it's not working. It's early, though, and the smart money has Romney running slightly ahead of Perry, which suggests that at least somebody thinks that Perry will prove vulnerable to this or some other line of attack.