AL GORE and Bill Bradley both are intelligent candidates who understand the Social Security and health care problems the country faces. Pity that in their televised "debates" last Friday and Sunday, neither felt able to share that understanding with the public whose support they seek.
In private conversation, each would likely tell you there is no way that foreseeable revenues can cover the cost of current Social Security benefits once the baby boomers retire. The same will be true even earlier of Medicare, particularly if the prescription drug benefit that both men rightly advocate is added to the array. The uncovered cost becomes even greater if you seek as well to provide for the uninsured, now about a seventh of the population. Both men say--again rightly, in our view--that they want to head down that path, too.
The obvious choices are to find more revenue or reduce the government promises--begin to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, acknowledge that only some of the uninsured will end up covered, etc. But neither man will even agree that such steps are necessary--they sense it's impolitic--and they diminish themselves in the resulting mushy and defensive flight from what they know--and most of the voters watching also know--to be the truth.
Tim Russert, moderator on NBC's "Meet the Press," tried heroically on Sunday to force something other than cardboard discussion. He ran through a list of possible Social Security benefit cuts. Would they raise the age of eligibility for full retirement benefits since people are living longer? Wold they bobtail the indexation of benefits since the consumer price index is thought to overstate inflation? Would they force state and local government employees to pay the tax, since they often end up qualifying for benefits?
A sampling of answers. Mr. Gore: "Well, I'm not for raising the retirement age, I'll tell you that right now." Nor, specifically, for anything else, it turned out, but "I will guarantee that in a Gore presidency you will have the leadership to solve" da-da, da-da, da-da. Mr. Bradley was little if any better. Sooner or later, someone would have to "consider all the possibilities," he said, "all of the things that you mentioned," but apart from saying no to an increase in the retirement age, an issue on which he was slightly burned earlier in the campaign, "I'm not going to get into all those other issues."
As to health care, Mr. Bradley has proposed a plan for supposed universal coverage which Mr. Gore attacks in alternate sentences for being too costly and providing too small a benefit. Mr. Bradley, he says, wouldn't leave enough money in the till to pay for Medicare, but Mr. Gore wouldn't, either--not in any serious sense, anyway. Mr. Bradley, for his part, says he'd pay for his plan out of a surplus in other than Social Security funds that will only materialize if other domestic spending is cut to a degree that neither political party will or ought to vote for, and that he himself would not begin to countenance.
This is a year that started with a State of the Union address in which the president promised to "save Social Security" first. But he no more than these candidates proposed a real plan to do other than use any surplus to pay down the debt in Social Security and Medicare's name. That would make it easier for the government to borrow again when the bills come due, not reduce the bills or durably finance them. His proposal was to defer the serious part of the problem until someone else's watch. On the question of financing the benefits they are so eager, with cause, to confer, his would-be successors are likewise blowing smoke. Maybe Mr. Russert should run.