WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 21, 1963, speaking in San Antonio the day before he was murdered in Dallas, President Kennedy explained the importance of the space program by citing a story by the Irish novelist Frank O'Connor. The story involved a boy who, when he came to a high wall he was afraid to climb, would toss his cap over the wall. ``This nation,'' said Kennedy, ``has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it.''
The 43rd president, even more than the 35th, favors a cap-over-the-wall presidency. Kennedy's cap-tossing was confined to his optional vow in 1961 that America would land a man on the moon before that decade ended. That vow pulled policy. President Bush's even bolder cap-over-the-wall decision is to define his second term by a vow to ``transform'' Social Security.
This decision, although desirable, was optional. Bush does not need to attempt it. The current estimate -- it probably will be revised upward, again -- is that Social Security outlays will not exceed revenues until 2018. So Bush could have kicked this can down the road, which is what democratic governments are wont to do.
Democracies generally do difficult things only under the lash of necessity. The British tardily brought Churchill to power in May 1940, only because Hitler's tanks were heading for the Channel ports. In the 1930s, Americans fundamentally changed their relationship to the federal government only because they were afraid that, absent sweeping changes, they might be consigned to permanent stagnation. In the 1960s, the nation addressed its civil rights shortcomings only because they had ignited a crisis, threatening domestic tranquility.
This is why the Democrats' first defense against Social Security reform is to deny that the system faces a serious crisis. They might be right, but cannot know that they are: The size of the solvency problem is unknowable. It might be less menacing than as portrayed by Bush administration projections, which peer far -- beyond 75 years, using what is called ``the infinite horizon model'' -- into the future.
However, it has been said that economists use decimal points only to prove that they have a sense of humor. The same can be said of a familiar form of political fiction, the 10-year economic projection.