EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the February 14, 2005, issue of National Review.
The conventional wisdom has it that President Bush’s Social Security reform is dead before it has even been proposed. Democrats are nearly united against personal accounts. Republicans are scattered. Some Republicans want personal accounts, but no future benefit cuts. There are Republicans who think that Bush is exaggerating the program’s solvency problem. Others want tax reform to be combined with Social Security reform. Still others want no part of Social Security reform at all.
Bush’s task is made harder by the fact that the media are not playing the issue straight. Having for years lectured us about the coming fiscal crunch from entitlements, the major newspapers are now minimizing the problem. They are pretending that we have no problem until the 2040s. The truth is that we have to find around $5.8 trillion before that time to pay Social Security’s bills. President Bush is the only one around who is trying to figure out what to do about that problem. The media should be congratulating him. Instead, they are criticizing him and even inventing pseudo-scandals. Take the revelation in the New York Times that the Social Security Administration is considering an effort to explain the dimensions of the fiscal problem. This is an agency that, every year, sends all employed Americans a letter listing the benefits the program is supposedly going to give them. That amounts to a massive propaganda effort against reform. For the agency to explain that those benefits cannot be paid for is a step toward true neutrality.
Republicans should fight the misleading press coverage, but there is a limit to how much they can achieve on that front. If the press is not going to report the true dimensions of the program’s fiscal problem, reformers should move to more favorable terrain. The case for reform is that the program is taking a lot of money from young people and will not be able to give them much in return. That is the fundamental case the Republicans should be making. President Bush has already begun to shift his emphasis. His inaugural address said less about the program’s finances than about the independence and wealth that personal accounts would provide to young people. If his presentation had a flaw, it was only that he presented the accounts more as an agent of moral transformation than as a tangible benefit.
But there is time to improve, and this is no time to despair. The onus now is on President Bush to provide a credible plan that allows today’s young people to have a brighter retirement tomorrow, while signaling an openness to modify that plan in response to congressional sentiment. If a bill passes, the potential political downside seems limited. Congressional Republicans are fretting about the mixed political effects of the Medicare bill they passed in 2003. But these cases are not parallel. Senior citizens have been finding their drug coverage decreasing, and have blamed it on the bill. Any Social Security reform, on the other hand, is unlikely to impose any pain on anyone for many years to come. After a bill passes, seniors will be able to see that they had nothing to worry about. Only if Republicans fail to pass a bill will it be possible for Democrats to accuse them of trying to slash seniors’ benefits. The true political interests of the congressional party militate in favor of passage. The choice for Republicans in Washington is whether to hang together, or separately.