As he prepared for reelection in 2004, President George W. Bush decided to tackle entitlement reform, a difficult policy question that most politicians studiously ignore. He knew that the big ones, Social Security and Medicare, face a bleak future. Both were on a fast track to insolvency and bankruptcy. Mr. Bush decided to spend his second-term political capital reforming them. But when he found little support among other Republicans, he quietly changed direction.
Before abandoning the idea, Mr. Bush found himself on Air Force One with then-Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana, talking about the difficulties of even discussing entitlement reform. A no-nonsense former cattle auctioneer and rancher, Burns told the president the idea was a nonstarter for one simple reason.
“Think about it,” Burns said. “You’ve got that piddling little ranch down there in Texas. What would you do if some fellow came to your door warning that the roof on your barn was slowly deteriorating and would have to be replaced in five or 10 years if you didn’t do something to fix it now, assuring you that if you spent a little to fix the problem, you’d save a heck of a lot in the long run? You’d throw the guy off the ranch, because Americans don’t fix things until they break.”
That American characteristic, Burns said, meant that no one would be willing to tackle the coming entitlement crisis until the whole system is on the verge of collapse, regardless of cost.
He was right. Since then, few have dared to even suggest reforming Social Security or Medicare, although everyone who’s studied the problem knows they are in real trouble. Opponents of reform have insisted for decades there is no need to worry either because they earlier assured recipients their future benefits were in an imaginary “lockbox” and that, in any case, both are sound insurance plans paid for by present and future beneficiaries.
Progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders insist that anyone who wants to do anything concerning entitlements other than raise benefits should be banished. A House Democrat recently charged that Republicans who suggest that reform should be on the table represent an “existential threat” to the nation.
One reason the programs are in so much danger is that Americans live so much longer than they did in the 1930s, when Social Security was launched. But proposals to raise the retirement age for future retirees or to means-test recipients are perceived by most politicians as politically fatal.
Democrats have attacked Republicans as enemies of Social Security and older Americans for 60 years. Remember the ads portraying former House Speaker Paul Ryan pushing an old lady in a wheelchair off a cliff? Republicans are not above the same sort of demagoguery, either: At CPAC earlier this month, former President Donald Trump ranted against Republicans who have dared suggest the need for entitlement reform as enemies of older Americans, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has assured potential supporters that messing with the sacred entitlements will never cross his mind should he ever find himself in the Oval Office.
When a fellow Florida Republican, Sen. Rick Scott, suggested somewhat unartfully last year that it was time to address runaway entitlement spending, his fellow Senate Republicans, including GOP leader Mitch McConnell, attacked him as politically irresponsible. They don’t want to be caught raising questions about the future of entitlements because doing so would take the courage to risk criticism.
The Congressional Budget Office predicts the two programs will cost $29 trillion in the next decade, and absent reform, their survival will require as much as 23% cuts to Social Security recipients. The bleak future Mr. Bush foresaw is just around the corner.
Surprisingly, former Vice President Mike Pence recently said that while he understands that entitlement reform shouldn’t be part of the ongoing debate over raising the debt ceiling, it must be “on the table in the longer term,” or both Social Security and Medicare will face insolvency. Mr. Pence rightly said, “We are looking at a debt crisis in this country over the next 25 years that is driven by entitlements, and nobody in Washington, D.C., wants to talk about it.”
And former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor, also acknowledged the need to look at the future of both programs on a recent trip to Iowa. She suggested that if Social Security and Medicare are to be saved, we must consider raising the retirement age.
Mr. Pence has yet to declare, but both he and Ms. Haley are running for president. Neither may succeed, but both should be applauded for a willingness to discuss issues that matter rather than mouthing political platitudes.
• David Keene is editor-at-large at The Washington Times.
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