When politicians head out on tour, it’s often because they need to drum up support for unpopular policies. Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke during his tour to promote a peace treaty opposed by some members of the U.S. Senate. Wilson never completely recovered, and the U.S. never did join the League of Nations.
In a less extreme example, President Obama recently hit the road to promote his latest “jobs” bill. He’s “setting the stage for a long, bruising reelection fight,” the Washington Post reported.
That tour hasn’t worked so far. The Senate voted down Obama’s $447 billion plan, and has been voting down individual pieces of it ever since. Still, columnist Robert Samuelson writes that it’s time for a different sort of tour.
In Samuelson's fantasy, “Retired presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush would tour the country together and apologize. They would apologize for not tackling Social Security and Medicare when they had the chance. They would say things that would offend their political bases: Bush would concede that we’ll ultimately need higher taxes to balance the budget; Clinton would support real Social Security and Medicare cuts to minimize draconian reductions in other government programs and steep tax increases.”
Samuelson correctly identifies the long-term problem: unfunded entitlement promises. The Heritage Foundation explains that, unless we increase taxes drastically, “spending on Medicare, Medicaid and the Obamacare subsidy program, and Social Security will consume all revenues by 2049. Because entitlement spending is funded on autopilot, no revenue will be left to pay for other government spending, including constitutional functions such as defense.”
But the columnist is wrong to pin equal amounts of blame on Clinton and Bush. The latter, after all, at least attempted to deal with the coming entitlement crisis.
In 2005, newly-reelected President Bush set out on a campaign to reform Social Security. His plan would have allowed taxpayers to create individual accounts they would control and divert a small portion of their Social Security taxes into those accounts. That would have allowed individuals to own and control some of their own retirement money.
Then Senate Minority leader Harry Reid said no. “Reid told the Post-Gazette editorial board that he had enough votes in the Senate to block President Bush’s proposal to introduce private savings accounts as an alternative to the existing federal retirement plan,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in April of 2005. “‘It’s dead,’ Reid said. ‘The president just hasn’t acknowledged it yet.’”
Reid offered no alternative approach back then, and he hasn’t since. As recently as March he declared he opposes making any changes to Social Security. “Two decades from now, I’m willing to take a look at it,” he tol MSNBC. “But I'm not willing to take a look at it right now.”
Now, one can argue that Bush’s plan wouldn’t have worked. But it’s unfair to say he didn’t try. Samuelson tries to skate past that by writing, “[Bush’s] effort at Social Security ‘reform’ was doomed from the start, because it included personal investment accounts that were bound to arouse ferocious opposition.” But as Harry Reid shows, the left’s position was -- and remains -- that it will accept no changes to Social Security and will politically attack anyone who proposes any such changes.
Meanwhile, “Clinton rebuffed all efforts to get him to act,” destroy” the program. Good politics. Bad policy.”
That’s still true today.
Recall that the Republican House of Representatives this year passed an in-depth Medicare reform measure. “The plan would cut spending by $6.2 trillion over the next 10 years compared to spending levels in the president's 2012 budget request,” ABC news explained, and “also reduces deficits by $4.4 trillion, but takes decades to balance the budget.”
The left responded. Not by opening talks, but by saying no. “It is a flag we’ve planted that we will protect and defend. We have a plan. It’s called Medicare,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi insisted. Don’t look for compromise there.
“In next year’s campaign, the ex-presidents would act as a two-man truth squad,” Samuelson imagines, explaining the need for reform and encouraging active politicians to sign on. But as long as one side of the entitlement debate insists there’s no need to change anything at all, there’ll be no magic in this proposed tour.