Speaking by phone from the campaign trail in Nebraska, Kerrey rattles off the statistics on fewer workers supporting the benefits of a larger number of retirees as federal entitlement spending squeezes out every other public investment in the general welfare.
“Our future as a great country depends on our ability to resolve this problem,” he says. It has been his consistent warning since he co-chaired the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform in the early 1990s. And it is the cause that has led him back into elective politics after an 11-year absence.
During past Senate service, Kerrey was known for his bluntness. (He once publicly said: “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good.”) The trait endures. The main obstacle to entitlement reform, he told me, is the “presupposition that people older than 65 can’t take the truth. People are afraid of them. . . . We need to get people over 65 to look at people under 40, who, right now, are going to get screwed. They are going to get less than they were promised. We need to ask the grandparents, does that bother them?”
Not as much as it should. But it bothers Kerrey, 68. “If I win, I want to be specific on changes in Medicare and Social Security. I don’t want to go back just to be back.” By the end of the campaign, he predicts, “it will feel I’m to the right of the Republicans on this.”
Kerrey’s criticism of Congress on the entitlement issue has its own tea party edge. “One option is to do nothing,” he says. “That currently has 535 co-sponsors.” He describes the Simpson-Bowles report on fiscal reform as “a huge lost opportunity” because “the country was ready for it” — which seems an implicit criticism of President Obama’s refusal to embrace the recommendations of his own commission.
Kerrey scatters bipartisan responsibility in the failure of last year’s deficit supercommittee. The problem started, he says, “when [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid didn’t put on [Majority Whip Richard] Durbin and when [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell didn’t put on [Sen. Tom] Coburn.” Durbin and Coburn had taken the political risk of supporting Simpson-Bowles. “Had they been on the supercommittee, it might have been a different outcome.”
Considering members of Congress “on an individual basis,” Kerrey says, “you should presume patriotism.” But he thinks congressional rules favor partisan gridlock: “I am campaigning to amend the Constitution to abolish both the Republican and Democratic caucuses. . . . We should not allow Congress to organize by party. How can you work with someone who is raising money to defeat you? The rules of Congress have to change, and they can’t be trusted to rewrite their own rules.”
Kerrey, with plenty of people trying to defeat him, is clearly frustrated by the course of the campaign, which has focused on his extended absence from Nebraska as president of the New School in New York City. “The most important issue for me right now,” he vents, “is defending that I spent 11 years in New York. We need to get to the part where we have a conversation” on entitlements. “We become Greece if we don’t solve this one.”
The current market for vivid ideological idiosyncrasy is weak. Conservative super PACs are already weighing in against Kerrey. Elements of the left seem no more enthusiastic. “Bob Kerrey equals Joe Lieberman in our minds,” snarks one progressive activist.
It is a sign of political sickness when the name Lieberman — which stands for independence, integrity and civility — is employed as an epithet. Our system is incapable of significant action when every representative is ideologically typical and predictably partisan. Which is the strongest argument for Bob Kerrey.