Social Security pitch

Posted: Nov 02, 2000 12:00 AM
You can tell a lot about a man's character by how he acts when he's down. And during this last week of the campaign, Al Gore, tied in national polls but unexpectedly fighting to save traditionally Democratic states such as California, Oregon and Washington (not to mention his home state of Tennessee), is looking more and more like a desperate candidate, thrashing about for a lifesaving issue. He's settled on pitching Social Security reform -- into the gutter.

So in Kissimmee, Fla., Gore committed another drive-by attack on George W. Bush's plan to save Social Security. "I don't want to gamble with the program that is the cornerstone of retirement security for millions of Americans," Gore said. This attack came a day after telling Jay Leno he wants to "honor our mothers and fathers" by protecting Social Security, and a week after the Democrats ran a series of phone calls by Ed Asner accusing Bush of undermining Social Security, "even threatening current benefits."

The Bush campaign accuses the Democrats of "scare tactics." True enough, but hardly strong enough, to my taste. Social Security is the most important issue on which the Clinton-Gore administration has failed to rise to the task of leadership. If George W. were asking me to draft his speeches, this is what he'd say:

"After eight years under Clinton and Gore's stewardship, the Social Security system is headed for bankruptcy. Every other time the system has faced a crisis, Democrats and Republicans came together to protect Social Security. But Clinton and Gore have failed in their sacred responsibility to make sure Social Security stays in the black -- not just for the next few years, but for the next 75 years, as required by law.

"Sadly, this administration's own economists tell us that the system is going broke. This is mostly because Americans are living longer, and having fewer children, than ever before: Fewer and fewer workers have to support more and more retirees. But the crisis is deeper today than it ought to be because the current administration has squandered much of the Social Security trust fund surplus for new government spending. It has squandered time and money, and each passing year makes the solution both more urgently needed and more difficult.

"In 15 years, there won't be enough money in current tax receipts to pay all the benefits promised. In less than 40 years, the system will go bankrupt. Doing nothing is not an option; if we care about Social Security, we need leaders committed to saving the program, not to defending a failing status quo.

"Why has Al Gore done nothing in eight years to save Social Security? Why did it take Republicans in Congress to insist that none of the Social Security surplus can be spent on other government programs? Was the White House distracted by pressing immediate necessities, by war or economic recession from the task of saving Social Security? No. In a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity, the reason Social Security is still at risk is simple.

"Politics, ladies and gentleman. Politics as usual in Washington, D.C. This administration didn't want solutions; they wanted partisan bickering. They decided Democrats could win more votes by scaring seniors than saving Social Security.

"But Americans are smarter than that, and more decent than that. As president, I promise each and every one of you: Making sure Social Security delivers on its promises -- for you and also for your children and grandchildren -- will be the highest priority of my administration. As for Al Gore's promises? Just look at the record."

And, I might add, consider the source.