Back in 2005, President George W. Bush embarked upon what may have been the bravest and most ill-fated campaign of his presidency. It inspired some rhetoric on par with, if not worse than, that of anti-war politicians criticizing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fight was over Social Security -- the sacred entitlement, the legacy of FDR, the so-called third rail of American politics.
Bush, in what was a responsible if badly pitched campaign, sought to convince American voters of the imminent financial crisis Social Security was facing and that they should support a plan to give individual citizens some ownership over their benefits. He failed to convince the public, and the Democratic Party happily embraced a role as the "Party of No," scoffing at Bush’s allegedly manufactured crisis.
Flash forward to this year, when the New York Times reported:
"This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office."About that crisis. The Associated Press reported this spring that, in light of this new development, it would be nice for the federal government to tap into that nest egg of extra Social Security tax revenue its been collecting all these years -- if it hadn’t already spent it.
"The Treasury Department issued a stack of IOUs -- in the form of Treasury bonds -- which are kept in a nondescript office building just down the street from Parkersburg’s [W.Va.] municipal offices."The federal government is now cashing in the IOUs for foreign debt. Welcome to a crisis. Somewhat luckily, given that we’re awash in run-away entitlements and unfunded mandates from now until the end of time, the national mood is in favor of recognizing the problem and doing something about it. As illustrated by 2005’s Social Security reform circus, it has, up until now, always been easier to demonize someone trying to make tough choices to fix an entitlement problem and ignore the problem as it gets larger and larger.
Spineless politicians were always going to need the consensus of the American people to tackle entitlements. Spending money we don’t have is, after all, so much more fun than paying for the things we’ve bought. Solving the entitlement problem will still be extremely hard, and I’m not convinced politicians will have the stomach for it, even with the American people asking them to.
After all, they just spent $2 trillion on a health care entitlement more than half the country asked them not to pass.
But there are rhetorical rays of light that suggest the third rail may become slightly less dangerous in the future.
To read the entire August HamNation column, order Townhall Magazine today.