There is a brand of Republican who looks at President Obama’s vulnerability on the economy and says, “Go for it!” They argue that the overriding issue of the campaign should be jobs — and that everything else should be a distant second.
There is another kind of Republican who sees the election of 2012 as a tipping point for the nation — a do-or-die moment when we will either pull back from the precipice of debt and national decline or fall off the edge. This second brand of Republican is hoping that a candidate will emerge who can lay before the American people the nature of the challenge we face in a direct and forthright way. If a campaign is run and won on the need to reform our obese government, the new president will have a mandate to take the necessary steps once in office.
After Wednesday’s Republican debate, it seems that Mitt Romney represents the first group, and Rick Perry stands for the second.
Members of the first camp — and it includes lots of smart people, such as Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Mike Murphy — may agree that defeating Obama is critical, but they argue that it’s tactically stupid to mention the looming bankruptcy of “popular” federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare. At Wednesday’s Republican debate, Mitt Romney, responding to Rick Perry’s earlier description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” planted a flag and declared that “our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security. . . . I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure. We save Social Security. And under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it’s a failure. It is working for millions of Americans, and I’ll keep it working for millions of Americans. And we’ve got to do that as a party.”
Rubbish. How can you deny that a bankrupt government program is a failure? As for whether it’s a Ponzi scheme, well, when the program was adopted, there were 17 workers for every retiree, and the average life expectancy was 58 for men and 62 for women. By 2035, there will be an estimated 2.1 workers for every retiree, and life expectancy — even if it remains at 2011 levels (male 75, female 80) — will still be about 18 years longer. What Perry said was the simple truth: There will be no funds for 25-year-olds to draw upon when they reach retirement age.
There was a time when Social Security was a net asset to the government — which is why the federal government routinely raided the funds raised by the Social Security payroll tax to spend on other programs. But that is no longer true. As the Social Security trustees’ 2011 report documents, Social Security added $49 billion to last year’s budget deficit and is projected to add $46 billion to this year’s deficit. And $2.6 trillion of our $14 trillion national debt is owed to the Social Security trust fund. Or rather, “trust fund.”
This reality was dramatized during the debate over raising the debt ceiling, when President Obama attempted to scare seniors by warning that Social Security checks might not go out on time if recalcitrant Republicans continued to refuse to raise taxes. He thus exposed the naked truth — that the trust fund is bare and the checks to current and future beneficiaries depend upon taxes and borrowing.
The Romney Republicans want candidates to tiptoe around the question of entitlements, as if the truth will be too harsh for fragile voters to hear. But the voters are not so sensitive — nor so uninformed.
A Gallup poll taken in May found that 67 percent of Americans believe that Social Security and Medicare are already creating or will within ten years create “a crisis for the federal government.” That included 54 percent of Democrats. Another 19 percent expect the crisis within 10 to 20 years. Only 4 percent said the programs would not create a problem for more than 20 years, and 7 percent said “not in the foreseeable future.”
To face the facts about Social Security is not to throw granny over the cliff, as the Democrats would have it. There are reforms (such as the program adopted by Chile, as Herman Cain mentioned and as I wrote about recently) that would offer a better return for retirees and a better deal for younger workers. Republicans can also fairly propose gradual increases in the retirement age.
Either Americans are going to solve this problem by facing up to it, or they aren’t. But Republicans cannot hope to sneak the issue past the voters during election season with dishonest palaver and then impose a solution — or worse, join the Democrats in denial. On this issue, Rick Perry was treating voters as adults.