Here’s a fantasy of mine that might help solve the long-term budget problem. Retired presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush would tour the country together and apologize. They would apologize for not tackling Social Security and Medicare when they had the chance. They would say things that would offend their political bases: Bush would concede that we’ll ultimately need higher taxes to balance the budget; Clinton would support real Social Security and Medicare cuts to minimize draconian reductions in other government programs and steep tax increases.
This exercise would elevate public rhetoric to the level of private knowledge. Clinton and Bush know, as does almost anyone who’s examined the budget, that lower retirement benefits and higher taxes are essential to bringing government revenues and spending eventually into balance. But practicing politicians cannot utter these twin truths together without calling forth the full wrath of their own true believers, who remain in resolute denial — or are simply dishonest.
Clinton would condemn Democrats’ ritualistic attacks on Republicans — he excelled at them — that equate any changes in Social Security and Medicare with demolishing the programs. Bush would challenge the world’s Grover Norquists for whom even the tiniest tax increase is an unpardonable sin inviting economic ruin.
In next year’s campaign, the ex-presidents would act as a two-man truth squad. If President Obama or his Republican opponent engaged in misleading scare tactics, Clinton and Bush would call them out. This would subject both Clinton and Bush to abuse from their partisans. But any discomfort would atone in part for their mistakes in office.
Start with Clinton. The 1990s were the last opportune time to deal with federal retirement programs. The country was in an economic boom. The policy-wonk president understood the problem. Because Social Security and Medicare are identified with Democrats, he could propose changes more easily than could Republicans. The oldest baby boomers, born in 1946 like Clinton, were more than a decade away from turning 65; so any changes could be introduced gradually.
Clinton rebuffed all efforts to get him to act. These started with a presidential commission on “entitlements” demanded by then-Sen. Bob Kerrey as the price for supporting Clinton’s initial economic program. In his second term, there was a bipartisan commission on Medicare. Clinton ignored both. There were other opportunities, including Republican signals that they’d like to deal. Republicans’ proposed changes to Medicare elicited the usual response: They would “destroy” the program. Good politics. Bad policy.
The fact that the last Clinton budgets swung into surplus mostly reflected good luck: The end of the Cold War created huge defense savings, and the Internet and stock-market booms triggered an unexpected surge of tax revenues. These ended with the bursting of the tech bubble and 9/11.
As for Bush, he made a bad situation worse. His tax cuts, especially those of 2003, went overboard. His Medicare drug benefit, passed by Congress in 2003, was a shameless effort to buy support of the elderly in the 2004 election. Though costing less than expected, it’s still expensive: $269 billion from 2006 to 2010. His effort at Social Security “reform” was doomed from the start, because it included personal investment accounts that were bound to arouse ferocious opposition.
Okay, it’s just my fantasy. Clinton and Bush won’t apologize and atone. They won’t play truth squad. But the fact that my fantasy seems so outlandish offers a sobering commentary on our politics.
There’s no culture of moral accountability. There’s no sense that political leaders, retired from office seeking, should come clean with the public. The essential nature of the country’s budget problem — the dominance of spending on retirement benefits and uncontrolled health costs — was no secret to either Clinton or Bush. It would be healthy for the country if they confessed that their dodging of unpopular choices helped create today’s mess.
Their silence contributes to continued public confusion and political stalemate. Polls consistently show that Americans want budget deficits closed but dislike the policies that would close them: higher taxes on much of the public; cuts in retirement benefits; reductions in other government programs. On both left and right, myths persist of painless solutions: “eliminating waste” or “taxing millionaires.”
It’s true, as Democrats charge, that Republican rigidity on taxes obstructs agreement. But that’s not the only obstacle. Democrats’ intransigent defense of Social Security and Medicare reflects the programs’ utility as a partisan vote-getter. Republicans “have launched an all-out war on Medicare and Social Security” says a new fundraising mailer from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Why sacrifice this pitch even if it’s untrue?
Congress’s “supercommittee” — charged with reducing budget deficits — is reportedly floundering. Small wonder. Our political system prefers rhetorical fairy tales to unpleasant budget realities.