ONE CAN DEBATE the merits of creating personal accounts in Social Security but not the case for fixing the program's solvency problems. Over the next 75 years, as the Social Security trustees reported on Wednesday, the program has a projected deficit of $4 trillion; the longer the nation waits to address this problem, the nastier the tax hikes or benefit reductions that will result. But that's not the impression conveyed by some Democratic leaders. The trustees' report, according to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), "confirms that the so-called Social Security crisis exists in only one place: the minds of Republicans." The senator's desire to score political points is understandable. His willingness to do so by implying that Social Security is healthy is not.
Democrats defend this opportunism by saying the president is worse. President Bush, they complain, is talking up an alleged Social Security "crisis" in order to ram through an unrelated proposal to create personal accounts. But, in addressing Social Security, Mr. Bush is taking on an issue that the Clinton administration also regarded as important; he is not inventing a problem. He can be faulted for not specifying the benefit cuts or tax hikes he favors to restore solvency, but at least he acknowledges some will be needed. In that context, personal accounts are not irrelevant; they involve risks, but they are potentially a way of cushioning the necessary benefit cuts in the traditional Social Security system.
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Democrats are right that the Bush tax cuts have created a much bigger crisis: Their impact on the deficit over the next 75 years, as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, is about three times greater than the Social Security shortfall projected by the trustees. It is also true that Medicare poses more of a problem than Social Security. Mr. Bush dodges that larger problem, pretending that he put Medicare on the road to reform when, in fact, he and Congress mostly added to its fiscal problems by creating a new entitlement for drug reimbursements. But it's hard to take seriously the Democrats who say that Mr. Bush should switch focus from Social Security to the much bigger problem of Medicare: If they aren't willing to play a constructive role on the supposedly "minor" challenge of Social Security, why should anyone believe that they would behave constructively if the administration wanted to fix Medicare?
The nation faces a severe economic threat from the aging of its population combined with escalating health costs. The sooner it begins to grapple with this problem, the less painful the solution will be. For Mr. Bush, that would mean acknowledging the need for more revenue. For the Democrats, it would require for a smidgeon of honesty about Social Security's state.