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Rick Perry just doesn't understand Social Security.

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For some Republicans, the 75 years we’ve lived with FDR’s social safety net has been a time of interminable pain — the biggest nail in the coffin of the great, up-by-your-bootstraps America. For most, however, it’s a fight that’s long been over — after all, two-thirds of America wants Social Security as-is.

Rick Perry seems to be one of those who can’t let it go. When you call something a “Ponzi scheme,” it needs no clarification — you are saying it is illegal and should be eliminated. And that’s just what Perry has done — twice. In his book and at a recent debate, he labeled Social Security a Ponzi scheme.

Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme. In a Ponzi scheme, people (generally the already well-off) are preyed upon because of their greed. They seek greater rewards from their investments than they should expect. There is no real financial foundation in a Ponzi scheme; it’s just a fancy way to steal. Think Bernie Madoff.

Social Security, meanwhile, is an insurance policy against being too poor to survive when you get old, backed by the full credit of the United States. It’s not a getrich-quick scheme used to steal from anyone. And the financial foundation is, despite looming problems, solid — in fact, with no changes at all, projections show it is solvent until 2036; with some tweaks (which President Obama advocates), economists say you can add another 40 years without much trouble.

A Ponzi scheme is enabled by private greed and is a crime; Social Security is enabled by public concern and is the well-established, widely supported law of the land.

So Perry is wrong about Social Security, but he is getting more correct all the time that it will be at the crux of the 2012 election.

It’s a strange obsession — wanting to take America back to when there was 50 percent poverty among Americans 65 and older. And Perry is sounding like old Captain Ahab when he barked at the great white whale: “To the last I grapple with thee!” It’s that “to the last” part that has his party’s honchos worried. Everybody knows how Moby-Dick ends for Ahab’s crew. Yes, it is as crazy as it sounds: The GOP, presented with a real shot at winning, has a front-runner who is tossing harpoons at a ghost.

By making 2012 a referendum on America’s social safety net, Rick Perry has brought a lot of energy and focus to the race. And he’s delivering a gift to Democrats beyond their wildest dreams.

Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.

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