Monday, October 04, 2010

Opportunity Squandered

Midway through Sunday's Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and Rand Paul on Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace tried, inadvertently, to give the Democrat a favor by asking about Social Security and Medicare:

WALLACE: All right. Let me -- let me -- let me ask you both -- because everybody likes to say, "Well, we got to get the spending down," but then people don't want to talk specifically about what they want to do.

No question, if you want to get serious -- and I'm directing this to both of you -- about the national debt, you have to do something about entitlements. I want to give you both a chance before the election. Tell me of a single benefit you would reduce, any eligibility you would change, a tax you would increase on either Social Security or Medicare to deal with the entitlement crisis.

Or it would have been a favor, if Conway had any idea how to respond.

CONWAY: Well, let me -- I'm the one that's been more specific in this particular area in this campaign. Dr. Paul talks a lot about having a federal budget balanced all the way next year. He's just not going to tell anybody how he's going to do it this year.

To do what he wants to do would be a 40 percent cut, and it would take the average Social Security benefit from about $1,100 down to about $700.

If you go to my Web site at I've been specific. I think we need Medicare bulk purchasing. I think it was wrong during this health care debate to take pharma out of it. We ought to let Medicare negotiate for lower prices the way we let Medicaid and the V.A. do that. That would save about $200 billion.

WALLACE: President Obama and the Democrats tried to do it, and the drug companies...


CONWAY: Well, it think we should -- that would be the first bill I introduce when I go to the United States Senate.

Secondly, we need Medicare fraud units in each and every state. There is a lot of fraud in the system, and estimates are there are about $100 billion in fraud. But you don't need to be handling it out of Washington in a big bureaucracy.

What I've done as attorney general is take on the Medicaid fraud. Medicaid fraud collections are up over...


WALLACE: Are you willing to reduce a benefit?

CONWAY: Here let me say one more thing on what I want to do as well. I think we need to end the offshore tax loopholes, a $130 billion in those. It can be done like that. We need a pay-as-you-go system. And then we also need a bipartisan debt commission to come back with recommendations.

WALLACE: All right.

Unlike Conway, Paul understood the objective is to get elected and denied wanting to cut benefits for current retirees, pretended to be forthright by claiming we should "not put our head in the sand," and suggested he would not "demagogue the issue." Here is how it went:

Dr. Paul, anything specific you're willing to say? "I will change entitlements this way."

PAUL: Right. Well, I think you don't do anything to people who are currently receiving Medicare or Social Security. But we do have to admit that we have the baby boom generation getting ready to retire and there's -- we're going to double the amount of retirees.

And to put our head in the sand and just say, "We're going to keep borrowing more money" is not going to work. There will have to be changes for the younger generation...

WALLACE: So be specific.

PAUL: For the younger generation, there will be -- have to -- changes in eligibility. And they've already started talking about this.


WALLACE: So you would raise the retirement age?

PAUL: There may have to be -- for younger people, yes. For younger people, longevity is out there. I mean, the average life expectancy in the '30s was 65...


WALLACE: You talked about higher deductibles or higher premiums.

PAUL: Not for those who are currently on Medicare or Social Security.

WALLACE: No, I'm talking about people 55 or younger.

PAUL: Yes. You're going to have to have eligibility changes for the younger people. And I think all younger people, if they're honest and will admit to it and have an adult discussion and not demagogue the issue, will admit that younger people will have to have different rules.

There is no use faulting Rand Paul. He is a right-wing libertarian; it is no mystery why he would try to run into the ground enormously popular government programs that are an inter-generational expression of the importance of community, of our commitment to one another.

Wallace's question, therefore, should have been a hanging curve to a Democrat. The Fox News host did not ask about the solvency of Social Security, which itself would be easily answered given that, with no change whatsoever, full benefits are projected to available through 2037. Instead, he asked about entitlements in the context of the national debt. Conway could have questioned the premise of Wallace's question, that Social Security has any impact on the debt or the deficit. Benefits are paid from a trust fund which, until the recent recession, had been accumulating surpluses.

The contrast with the nation's budget, obviously, is stunning. Wallace, ignorant or pretending to be so about entitlements, stated "If you want to get serious about the national have to do something about entitlements." Conway could have charged him with being dishonest about the nature of Social Security and Medicare, given that attacking the media is always good political strategy (bonus points, as in this instance, for being a valid attack).

Conway could have continued by accusing Wallace of wanting to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly; if pressed for a solution from the now chastened Wallace, Conway might have recommended increasing the cap on Social Security taxes (better yet, call them Social Security donations). A Kentucky schoolteacher, a waittress, or a coal minor should not paying double his or her share in taxes compared to a millionaire on Wall Street. (Extra credit here for demonizing New York City's Wall Street, popular in much of the country and, incidentally, justified.)

Given the opportunity to attack dishonest media, unabashedly support Social Security and Medicare, and put himself on the side of the middle class against the wealthy, the Senatorial nominee in Kentucky instead chose to speak of bulk purchases, medicare fraud, and offshore tax loopholes. All legitimate and relevant points- but also reminiscent of presidential nominee Social Security, also good policy but a little wonkish for most voters. And we know how that election turned out.

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