How Both Sides Fail on Social Security

Remember when political campaigns used to end? When politicians stopped fighting to defeat their opponents and got back to working together to solve the people’s problems? Me neither, which is unfortunate considering the stakes right now.

Overseas the U.S. is confronting a grinding war in Iraq, at least two rogue regimes pursuing nuclear ambitions and a shadowy network of terrorists. At home, President Bush has launched an ambitious agenda to reform Social Security before the retirement of the baby boomers begins to drain money from federal coffers. In his State of the Union earlier this month, Bush called for a discussion of how to best solve the problem, saying he wanted several options on the table. What we’ve seen instead from both sides is not so much debate as it is simply more shouting about previously-held positions.

Things hit a new low this week when USA Next, a conservative group lobbying on seniors issues, decided to take a big swing at the AARP. Supporters of the President’s plan are angry with AARP because it has opposed the President’s call for private accounts that workers could divert Social Security payroll taxes into. So USA Next hired some of the consultants who crafted ads for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and produced a web ad that said the AARP’s “Real Agenda” is opposition to U.S. soldiers in Iraq and support of gay marriage. The ad fails to mention the grounds for its accusations: That the AARP opposed an Ohio amendment banning gay marriage last November. The ARRP actually has no position on gay marriage; it opposed the amendment because it also banned civil unions, domestic partnerships and any other legal recognition of unmarried couples—including heterosexual couples—living together.

Just like the Swift Boat ads, which originally ran in just a handful of markets but got tons of free media, USA Next’s ad was only posted briefly on a few websites but successfully ignited the blogosphere and eventually the mainstream media. Other conservative groups like FreedomWorks and Progress for America are planning similar ad/lobbying campaigns. Several Democratic consultants on Thursday announced the creation of Americans United to Protect Social Security, a group that will coordinate efforts by Democratic groups like the Media Fund and organized labor to stop Bush’s plan. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees donated $1 million to get AUPSS off the ground. (Senator McCain, you may want to work faster on that 527 campaign finance reform.)

Bringing back the campaign war rooms only three months after the last election may seem fun, but the Social Security issue deserves a more constructive, mature debate. Neither the President nor the Democrats have a realistic solution, so compromise is essential.

The President’s plan depends heavily on his private accounts. Sensible people could argue for years on whether the accounts will provide a better return than traditional benefits (It depends on whether the stock market has an average rate of return greater than 3% while you’re contributing to the account). But Bush has not focused on the most important caveat: The accounts will do nothing to solve Social Security’s financial problems during the baby boomers’ retirement. In fact, the plan will worsen the problems by diverting money that could be paying for boomers’ benefits into private accounts for future retirees.

In the meantime, the Democrats continue to believe that the best defense is defense. They argue that Social Security is not going to be in trouble for years (if at all) and that Bush’s plan is a disaster waiting to happen. Notice there is no solution there. The Democrats need to put forward their own plan, whether it’s benefit cuts, raising the retirement age, raising taxes, allowing payroll taxes on wages over $90,000 a year or some sort of magical deus ex machina. Right now, neither side is showing any political courage, which makes during a campaign, but is it any way to govern?