For Democrats, time to rejoin the discussion

Posted: Mar 10, 2005 12:00 AM

What is happening in the Social Security debate reflects what has happened to the national Democrats.

Think about it.

Periodically since the 1960s the cry has gone up, We have to fix Social Security! With the facts obvious to just about anyone with his head screwed on right, just about everyone has agreed. And from time to time Congress has passed palliatives that have proved to be just that: palliatives.

Yet as estimates and projections of unfunded liabilities in not only Social Security but Medicare and (now) Medicaid have risen to alarming levels, roles have reversed. In 1998, President Clinton, noting, This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation, said famously: Save Social Security first! Three years later the revered Democratic Sen. Patrick Moynihan of New York endorsed as a partial Social Security solution small personal "add-on" accounts for which public enthusiasm would grow as the size of the accounts increased.

As President Bush picked up the Social Security cudgel, Democratic sentiment to fix it began running fast the other way. Maybe the Democrats grew faint at the very idea of Republican repair of the most hallowed Democratic program. Maybe they began blanching at even the suggestion of working with Republicans and the despised Bush. Or maybe they went to their cupboard of ideas and found it bare.

At any rate, this is the situation today.

Though some Democrats do acknowledge that the future of Social Security poses a problem, few dare to embrace Bush's word: crisis. Though the Democrats are good at opposing Republican fix-it ideas, they offer practically zero of their own. Discussing Social Security the other day, veteran Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville issued a memo to "progressives" lamenting profound voter concern about the Democrats who appear to lack direction, conviction, values, advocacy or a larger public purpose.

There's more.

Revaluing party unity upward so as to deny the Republicans any successes, Democrats are ripping as disloyalty any indication of bipartisanship on Social Security reform - notably, these days, regarding the party's most conspicuous odd-man-out, Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 vice-presidential nominee.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has blasted Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for having the audacity to concur with President Bush on - let's see - tax cuts, tax simplification and Social Security-related personal savings accounts. The distinguished Sen. Reid, having described Chairman Greenspan as "arrogant" for a decade, now terms him one of the biggest political hacks we have here in Washington. Connecticut Congressman Rob Simmons, generally a Democrat-voting Republican, holds this view about the pressing need to repair Social Security: Why stir up a political hornet's nest . . . when there is no urgency? When does the program go belly-up - 2042? I will be dead by then.

If the preponderance of data suggests the critical importance of fixing Social Security sooner rather than later (and it does), then the discussion should lead first to agreement on the program's impending insolvency and second to the form the fix will take.

Democratic governors do not help when they say it is not Social Security that merits attention first, but Medicare or Medicaid. The mainline media ("many reporters," says economics columnist Robert Samuelson, exhibit "math phobia" and so "detest math") do not help when they practice what he calls "journalistic malpractice" by refusing to report the numbers accurately and understandably.

And the AARP - almost exclusively a toiler in the Democratic vineyard - does not help by ginning up hostility among those over 54 to administration Social Security repair proposals (particularly personal savings accounts for younger workers and lower-income groups), when the president has stipulated repeatedly that under no administration proposal would there be any benefit reductions for anyone now over 54.

In the next two months, President Bush and members of his administration will be on the hustings, offering ideas for a permanent fix to Social Security - and perhaps Medicare.

During that time the Democrats could help by de-emphasizing what they are against and joining the discussion on what they are for - e.g., benefit cuts, tax hikes, higher income caps, increased retirement ages, putting new revenues in a "lock box." Or any in a panoply of options (even among mandated private-sector accounts) to supplement Social Security and other federal safety-net programs - options that practically all models and studies show would be vastly better financial deals than Social Security itself, especially Social Security alone.

The Democrats might thereby mature from the insistence of too many that nothing be done about pressing questions (such as Iraq). They might grow beyond limiting their support for "choice" to issues such as abortion. Indeed, by returning to a positive mode about fixing Social Security rather than unadulterated negativism - by rejoining the debate - they might begin contributing to a permanent solution at last.