THE CHAIRMAN of the Democratic National Committee has many talents, chief among them the ability to separate donors from their money, but no one's ever mistaken Terence R. McAuliffe for a policy wonk. And for good reason: Mr. McAuliffe's recent foray into the weeds of the Social Security debate was the kind of ill-informed demagoguery that discourages responsible politicians from confronting the problem.
Mr. McAuliffe worked himself in a lather over comments by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the compulsively provocative House Ways and Means chairman. Mr. Thomas's sin was pointing out that women generally live longer than men, and African Americans have shorter life spans; both of these phenomena, he suggested, should be considered as the Social Security debate unfolds.
For example, Mr. Thomas said, "Women are living longer relative to men today than they were in 1940. Yet, we never ever have debated gender-adjusting Social Security. . . . But, at some point if the age difference continues to separate and more women are in the workforce . . . somebody might want to suggest that we need to take a look at the question. . . ." Asked about those comments on NBC's "Meet the Press," Mr. Thomas said, "It's not that you would do it; it's something that you need to look at." Likewise, he said, "We also need to examine, frankly . . . the question of race in terms of how many years of retirement do you get based upon your race?"
Mr. McAuliffe unleashed a torrent of press releases and held a conference call with reporters to accuse Mr. Thomas of "attacking race and gender." He flogged the issue again after President Bush -- in response to a question about a completely different aspect of Mr. Thomas's recent pronouncements -- praised the chairman for "thinking creatively." Thundered Mr. McAuliffe, "It was wrong for Chairman Thomas to suggest that Social Security benefits be determined by race or gender and even more disgraceful that President Bush missed this opportunity to denounce these outrageous ideas." McAuliffe-watchers won't be surprised to learn that the DNC also ginned up a fund-raising e-mail and petition signatures "calling on Mr. Bush to disavow the notion of tying Social Security benefits to race or gender."
Mr. Thomas, as is his tendency, went a step too far. To reduce women's benefits because they live longer would worsen the already perilous situation of many elderly women, whose Social Security checks are already lower on average because they have fewer years in the workforce and earn less when they are working. But Mr. Thomas, after all, didn't endorse this approach; he said only that the Social Security debate ought to include a discussion of "who gets what, when and how."
That is exactly the conversation the country should be having. Supporters of private accounts for Social Security claim they would benefit African Americans because their shorter average lifespans mean they get a lower rate of return on the money they put into the system. Those on the other side contend that the progressive structure of the existing system helps African Americans, who also are more likely to collect disability benefits, another important component of the program.
These factors and equally complex arguments about women and Social Security should be considered in the forthcoming debate. Mau-mauing from the likes of Mr. McAuliffe may score political points, but only at the expense of productive discussion.