Rick Perry speaks the truth. Just ask him. When Time questioned Perry about his “controversial rhetoric,” including his claim that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” he didn’t shrink one bit. “There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there,” he said. “I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader.”
This is a familiar construction: Leadership requires candor. John McCain ran as a “straight talker” in 2000 and, to a lesser degree, in 2008. It’s also the line Barack Obama gave us in 2008, promising to tell uncomfortable truths and saying the way he talked told us something about the way he would lead.
But do voters really want truth—or merely a reasonable facsimile? In a time when the country is sick of duplicitous (or at least misleading) Washington politics, a “truth-telling” newcomer might be crushed in the mob of well-wishers. But usually these truths consist of forceful statements about uncontroversial propositions. That’s what Obama meant in 2008, and so far Perry is following a similar script. When a candidate makes so much of his candor while showing so little of it, he is engaging in the very sleight of hand that makes voters so thirsty for candor in the first place.
The immediate benefit of Perry’s claims is that they distract from what might be a political liability stemming from his remarks and past writings about Social Security. His proclamations of honesty are meant to show anyone just tuning in that he is merely under attack for being the one honest man in the race.
Longer term, being seen as a “truth teller” is a big political advantage. Sarah Palin, Gov. Chris Christie, and Rep. Paul Ryan are all GOP heroes in part because they are “truth tellers.” Sticking to your guns is arguably the single most important quality GOP activists are looking for in their nominee. They bring it up in interviews all the time. They want someone who will go to Washington and not get corrupted. That’s what Perry’s cocktail-circuit crack is about. He’s not against the same cocktail circuit he must ride to raise money, mind you—just the one inside the Beltway where the GOP establishment stands around complimenting itself and raising concerns about Perry’s controversial remarks. It’s also a nice political wedge for Perry against Mitt Romney, who has been dogged since his last campaign by questions about his constancy.
If you are seen as a candidate who tells it like it is, then it doesn’t really matter if on various issues you might not be ideologically in sync with the base. This is why one of the stock phrases in any “truth-teller’s” script is, “You might not always agree with me, but you know where I stand.” In Perry’s case, the larger hope is that his frankness and anti-Washington posture—as well as his other attributes like his Christian faith—will connect with voters in their gut. That bond will overcome individual items that might worry conservatives, like his position on the HPV vaccine or allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges. On these issues, Perry has pretty much stood his ground, even getting booed at the last debate for his position on immigration (though he may be wobbling on the HPV vaccine decision). Mike Huckabee benefited in this way in 2008. Voters overlooked his spending record as governor and the clemency decisions that went wrong.
Telling the truth is different from being blunt. When Perry talked about roughing up Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke if he ever made it to Texas, it was controversial—and it may have even been truthful—but it wasn’t exactly relevant. Which is to say, it wasn’t a straightforward assessment about the current state of the nation and what is necessary to improve it. The former is nourishing to voters, but Perry is claiming credit for the latter.
Nor is it a particularly courageous act in a party primary to hold a position your base agrees with but which upsets your opponents. In 2008, Obama was against the Iraq war when his party was against it. Likewise, while liberals may be offended when Perry questions global warming and evolution, for the purposes of the Republican primary, it does not qualify as truth-telling. To his base, these are noncontroversial issues.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama regularly proclaimed that he would tell voters “hard truths,” but he never really did. What he meant was that he would say one mildly controversial thing, not that he would shoot himself with truth serum before answering every question. So he talked about how, at a speech in Detroit, his mention of raising fuel-efficiency standards received a cool reception. This sounded like classic truth-telling: speaking candidly to an interested party in a way that might cause you political pain. But speaking sternly to auto executives is a narrower feat than speaking candidly to voters. That’s why at the end of the speech Obama referred to, he got a standing ovation.
The story seemed a little small for the sweeping speak-truth-to-power claims that were being made for it. So, too, do Perry’s claims about telling the truth on Social Security. He’s taking a big stand on a small plot of land. Perry is claiming candor for speaking the “truth” about Social Security’s long-term fiscal condition. In the last debate, he said younger voters should know that he is someone “who came along that didn’t lie to them, that didn’t try to go around the edges and told them the truth.” He has dropped calling it a “failure,” so what remains is not very controversial. Plenty of people agree that the program needs to be fixed. Perry says no one has tried to do anything about the problem; he may want to talk to George W. Bush, who did try—and failed.
Where Perry does have an opportunity to tell the truth is on the specifics of his plans to fix Social Security. This is not advisable. Specificity gets you in trouble, which is why candidate Obama, after saying reforms such as raising the retirement age and indexing benefits were on the table, then took them off. In his book, Perry makes the case for having the states run Social Security. This qualifies as truth-telling—and may even count as exciting, if we can use that adjective about Social Security reform. But when pressed on this issue during this week’s debate, Perry retreated from specifics. (To his credit, Perry has not always retreated. In Dubuque, Iowa, in August, before the Social Security issue became so touchy, he said state control might be an option to consider, and he has also suggested that those with fixed incomes should contribute to their Medicare or Medicaid costs in order “to have skin in the game.”)
The question now for Perry, as it is for every politician who proclaims his loyalty to the truth, is how and when to tell it. Sometimes politicians really do tell people things they don’t want to hear. Other times they just maintain the posture of telling hard truths as a way to obscure their positions. A truth-teller knows the difference.