Of the stage-full of Republican hopefuls running for president this year, Mitt Romney is beginning to emerge as the only serious one in sight. It's his sober rather than angry approach to the issues that appeals. Now he's showing another mark of responsible leadership: a willingness to take unpopular stands the rest of the candidates may know are right but don't dare risk.
The other day, would you believe it, Mr. Romney came out for raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits in the future, and even slowing the growth of payments for retirees with higher incomes. Talk about touching the third rail of American politics.
It's an old rule of presidential politics: Social Security is sacrosanct, and no politician who wants to be elected will lay hands on it. Even though it has become clear that some changes need to be made if the program is to be saved for future generations. And now Mitt Romney is proposing just that.
While he was at it, Mr. Romney said he would let folks on Medicare choose to buy less expensive health insurance if they wanted to, and let them keep the savings. Or buy more expensive coverage if they were willing to pay for it. It sounds all too fair and practical to be popular, not with the opposition already playing Mediscare.
There's no use looking to Barack Obama for leadership on this issue or any other; he keeps passing the buck to Congress without risking any clear cost-cutting program of his own. He's got no time for anything as mundane as budgets. He's busy running for re-election next year on little more than the kneejerk assertion that, whatever's wrong with the country, it's the Republicans' fault. What does he need with a program? He's got a scapegoat.
And so Social Security grows less and less secure. Everybody knows Medicare is heading for fiscal trouble, too, but Mr. Romney may be the only presidential candidate of substance proposing to do something that's both decisive and acceptable about it. Like encouraging competition among insurance companies for seniors' business -- rather than continuing to ignore the whole, politically touchy issue.
What next, will he campaign against the ethanol boondoggle in a Corn Belt state like Iowa? Or point out the bloated agricultural subsidies that go to agribusiness? Even now the farm bloc in Congress is proposing an extravagant expansion of such subsidies rather than a cutback.