Shameless Semantics

January 21, 2005

Two major changes have occurred since those long-forgotten days when Democrats were identifying Social Security as a crisis that had to be fixed immediately: The problem has gotten worse, and Democrats have proven they weren’t sincere in the first place.

Bill Clinton pretended to be adamant about fixing the problem. Al Gore lectured his presidential opponent George W. Bush for not approaching the problem with sufficient urgency. Allusions to the ephemeral “lock box” were Algore’s favorite sound bites.

One would think, then, that President Bush would be entitled to some credit for his willingness to tackle the notorious third rail of politics. He has little to gain politically from pursuing a solution.

Think again. In response to President Bush’s plan to add a private accounts option, Democrats insist that two rights make a wrong. That is, even if the president’s reform would enhance the average American’s retirement security, it must not be permitted if it would also help big business, which Democrats openly despise. You see, it’s not just the whack jobs on the Left, but the entire Democratic leadership apparatus that is saying the president is doing this as a sop to Wall Street.

But, alas, Democrats are not limiting their objections to their familiar class warfare tactics. Just like their about-face on assessing Saddam Hussein as a threat that had to be removed, they are now shamelessly, brazenly denying there is a serious problem with Social Security that needs serious attention.

Like little kids they are arguing over the semantics of whether we are currently facing a “crisis” in Social Security or just a major “problem.”

Who cares what you call it? This system is guaranteed to be deep in the red in less than 15 years mostly because of demographic shifts that will result in insufficient numbers of workers to support increasing numbers of retirees. In addition, because of a “well-meaning” adjustment introduced by the Carter Administration in 1977, initial benefits are indexed to wages so that each generation of retirees receives higher real benefits — more than the cost of living — than the previous generation.

Beginning in 2018, absent major reform, the federal government will have to tap general revenues to subsidize its Social Security benefit payments, eventually in staggering amounts approaching $10 trillion. A compounding factor is that the Social Trustees report estimates that we will lose $600 billion for every year we ignore the problem. Yet this isn’t a serious enough issue to demand our immediate attention?

How many times have we heard Democrats — latter-day deficit hawks that they are — rail against President Bush’s deficit spending? How many times have they feigned apoplexy over the spiraling national debt?

Well, folks, they must not mean what they say, because this looming Social Security problem is purely and simply about an inevitable explosion of the national debt. It’s only avoidable if we reduce benefits, reduce other federal spending and/or raise taxes — which at some point will be counterproductive on the revenue side.

Whether you call it a problem or a crisis, it is getting worse, and it’s nothing short of immoral to put off working on solutions. The only conceivable reasons Democrats are in denial about it is that they either don’t want to allow reform under a Republican president or don’t want to fix it at all because they might lose one of the main weapons in their fear-mongering arsenal.

If they join Republicans in solving the problem, they won’t be able to scare seniors away from the GOP with this issue any longer. It’s no different from their approach to school choice. If they join Republican reformers in freeing inner-city children, largely minorities, from their failed public schools, they’ll no longer be able to paint Republicans as ogres on education. And, they’ll risk losing the indispensable political support of the education establishment.

The Social Security “crisis” was the subject of my first syndicated column six years ago. We’ve done nothing to fix it in the meantime, and it’s getting worse.

President Bush is the first leader in a long time with the courage to do the right things even when they aren’t popular and even when they lend themselves to the worst kind of vicious demagogic opposition. But he’s also a guy who won’t be intimidated by his opponents’ tactics.

His opponents, including some on the Republican side, need to become part of the solution or get out of the way of those who are.