- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005

Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. A political vacuum will not long remained unfilled. Something will come along to occupy the void.

Right now, President Bush is allowing a vacuum to emerge over Social Security reform. Unless he moves quickly to fill the void, his opponents will. Presently, the vacuum is being filled with rumor, speculation, selected leaks, trial balloons, political posturing, demagoguery, competing plans — everything but a substantive reform proposal for the nation’s financially insolvent retirement program.

Much of this is intentional. White House aides insist the president eventually will come forward with something that looks like a plan, if not a real, honest-to-goodness, full-fledged reform bill. For now, these aides insist, the president is still in the “big idea” mode, selling the American people on the reality of the impending Social Security crisis — by 2018, the program will begin spending more on benefits than it collects in payroll taxes — and the need for systemic reform.

Only after this is done and enough people are persuaded the crisis is real and something bold is needed to rescue the system, aides say, will Mr. Bush be ready to come forth with a plan or something much like a plan. For now, the administration still is pitching the big idea, setting out the general principles, the broad themes, as the president did last Tuesday in his “conversation” on Social Security Reform.

The problem with this approach is the American people already have accepted the reality of the impending crisis and do not require more persuasion. The results of the 2004 election, as well as congressional elections in 2002, indicate the public has accepted and internalized the crisis as reality.

Candidates no longer fear the lethal third rail of American politics. No candidate in the last two cycles has lost because he embraced Social Security reform. Mr. Bush himself made reform one of the top four issues in his re-election campaign.

All those who can be persuaded, then, have been persuaded. The holdouts — the Democratic Party, Big Labor unions, AARP, the hard-left activist groups — are not “gettable” on the issue. They will fight to the death to preserve unchanged a government-run, socialist retirement scheme and will happily raise taxes to keep it afloat.

The big argument has been won, but the Bush administration continues presenting its case. Yet the debate rapidly shifts from general themes into the political arena where competing reform plans are proposed, debated and attacked. This is where the policy vacuum is forming. In the absence of detailed, specific leadership from the White House, Social Security reform is turning into a free-for-all.

It may be the White House is not unhappy with this. And such an approach is not out of character. This is precisely the White House pattern on education reform and the Medicare prescription drug entitlement.

In those cases, Mr. Bush set out broadly what he wanted to accomplish, then retreated from the details and left Congress to the messy mud wrestling of cobbling together actual legislation. Trouble arose in both instances when the final products failed to reflect the general principles the president had set forth. In both cases, however, Mr. Bush signed the final legislation and declared victory even though both No Child Left Behind and the drug entitlement failed to include important conservative principles he initially enunciated. Having no investment in the details, the White House avoided failure when the final products looked more Democratic than Republican.

Social Security reform is not, however, the same as lavishing more taxpayer money on public schools or doling out new entitlements to senior citizens.

Reforming the retirement system will be the biggest policy battle since the New Deal. This will require extraordinary leadership only the president can provide. At some point soon, Mr. Bush must come forth with a detailed plan. This time he cannot leave it to Congress to do the heavy lifting on details. He must present and fight for a principled and concrete plan.

This entails some risk. This president is reluctant to draw a line in the sand on legislation, for fear of losing. This administration is strikingly risk-averse and does not like having to defend and promote specific legislation. But the strategy that was serviceable on other issues will fail on Social Security reform. Clear vision and leadership will be needed.

In the meantime, the vacuum grows in the absence of clear presidential leadership and fools rush in. It can only be hoped Mr. Bush, if serious about Social Security reform, begins filling the void in his Inaugural address or State of the Union.

Richard Lessner is executive director of the American Conservative Union.

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