Imagine if Paul Revere had made his ride on April 18, 1775, declaring: "The British are coming, the British are coming ... and they will get here sometime between the years 1803 and 1805, depending on events including troop levels at that time in Boston, the next several parliamentary elections and the health of King George." The good folks of New England might have appreciated the warning, but considered Revere's urgency on that particular night a little out of place.
The Bush White House finds itself in a similar position to this hypothetical Revere in the Social Security debate, declaring a crisis seemingly so far off in the future that people wonder what all the shouting is about. A commonly cited date for Social Security crunch time is 2042 (the problem begins sooner than that, but put that aside for the moment). Economist John Maynard Keynes famously said that in the long run, we are all dead. 2042 is not quite the long run, but a lot of us will still be dead by then, as one Republican congressman noted by way of explaining his opposition to undertaking any Social Security reform whatsoever.
Any crisis 40 years away will strike most voters as attenuated, a fact Democrats have exploited effectively in the initial Social Security debate. Democrats go too far when they say, in effect, that "Bush lied about Iraq, and he is lying about Social Security." But the administration has been vulnerable to the charge of "false imminence" in both debates.
President Bush carefully avoided saying Iraq was an "imminent threat," but it was strongly implied, including in the word "pre-emption," which was constantly applied to the war. Countries pre-empt imminent attacks. This is why the distinction made by historian John Lewis Gaddis between Iraq being a war of pre-emption and prevention is so important. A war of prevention is waged to keep -- prevent -- a country from becoming an imminent threat, exactly the case in Iraq.
By the same token, a Social Security fix now would be undertaken to keep a problem -- a big $10 trillion problem that will get worse each year -- from becoming a full-blown crisis. It would be prevention, not pre-emption. This might seem a niggling distinction, but it matters. Already Bush's critics have been able to score easy points off his statement that on Social Security "the crisis is now."
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