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Social Security

Sharing Insights On Social Security

By David S. Broder
Sunday, April 12, 1998; Page C07

opinion
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania may be the most partisan member on the Republican side of the aisle. But when he sat down with President Clinton on Air Force One en route to Kansas City one morning last week, he was talking as one serious pol to another – sharing insights, not looking to score rhetorical points.

As Santorum later recounted the story, he told Clinton he had learned two important lessons about the Social Security issue from his narrow 1994 Senate victory over Clinton ally and former senator Harris Wofford, whose campaign was run by Clinton's favorite attack dog, James Carville.

"When Wofford and Carville came after me . . . as threatening Social Security, the media was incredibly fair," Santorum said. "They explained the issue. So I told the president that you won't see a knee-jerk reaction [in the press] if you recommend changes in Social Security.

"And the second thing I told him was that even though I won by only two points, I carried every age group except those between 51 and 64, the people who have the greatest expectations about Social Security and the greatest fear it won't be there. Retirees know we're not going to change the rules on them. But I told the president that whatever you do . . . leave the people nearing retirement alone."

This conversation – confirmed by White House aides – is extraordinary to anyone who knows the mutual contempt Clinton and Santorum have expressed for each other on many occasions. It is one reason – not the most substantive but maybe the most symbolic – why cynical Washington has rising hopes that Congress and the president may be able to agree next year on a policy to preserve Social Security.

Clinton and Santorum talked on the way to the first of four regional forums on Social Security to be held during congressional recesses between now and Labor Day. The launch exceeded expectations in the eyes of every participant with whom I talked.

John Rother of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), one of the sponsoring groups, told me, "It was educational. It was high-toned and, very important, it was bipartisan. Everyone was on his good behavior."

Tim Penny of the Concord Coalition, the other sponsor, said, "It was substantive. The politicians did better than I thought they would. They offered ideas and principles and the people got a lot of information."

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, the Democratic counterpart to Santorum on the Kansas City program, said, "The hardest part of solving this problem is to get people to understand how the program works – that it's a progressive, intergenerational income transfer program, not a savings program. Having the president use the power of his office to help explain it was extremely important. If the rest of us had gone out there alone, we couldn't have drawn the crowd or the coverage. They would've been throwing dead cats at us."

In some of the commentary after the event, Clinton was criticized for offering no specific proposal of his own. But to a man, Santorum, Kerrey, Rother and Penny all said that strategy was dead right. As Clinton said last January in the State of the Union address, where he outlined his timetable, 1998 has to be a year of public education and discussion if 1999 is to produce an acceptable solution to the Social Security problem.

The essence of that problem is that in barely over a decade the first of 76 million boomers will reach retirement age, swamping the Social Security system and placing an unacceptable tax burden on the smaller cohort of workers coming along behind them.

Adjustments made now can ease the country past the problem without the wrenching changes that will be required if nothing is done for another decade.

What emerged from the discussion in Kansas City was the outline of a solution that might be embraced by both parties: a continued guarantee of safety-net support for widows and orphans and the seriously disabled, plus a retirement program that might combine today's Social Security checks with some form of savings accounts offering young workers the opportunity to build a real nest egg for themselves and their heirs.

Any number of options are on the table. Clinton says the time to sweat the details is after similar town meetings have been held across the country. He plans a White House conference on Social Security for December, time enough to frame legislation for consideration in 1999.

His search for a legacy may have found an answer.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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