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Democrats in denial

Other editors say

So far, no candidate has had the guts to tackle soaring entitlement costs

The Washington Post

Now that the GOP has become the party of reckless tax cuts and what, me worry? deficits, the Democrats have a chance to recast themselves as the party of fiscal discipline. But to judge by the Democratic presidential candidates, fiscal discipline has its limits: It stops at the edge of tackling the real dangers to the country's solvency, Social Security and Medicare.

The candidates call for repealing President Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; they even venture to endorse doing away with middle-class breaks. But while undoing the tax cuts might be necessary to restore fiscal health, it won't be sufficient, and all the candidates know that.

None of them, however, dares to whisper about a possible trimming of entitlement benefits ' say, raising the retirement age for Social Security eligibility or means-testing Medicare. Indeed, to the extent they've hinted at anything so responsible in the past, they are flaying each other for past crimes of common sense ' and backpedaling as rapidly as possible.

The recent Democratic debate in New York ' in particular an exchange between Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and former Vermont governor Howard Dean ' offered a sorry illustration of this allergy to honest discussion. First Gephardt rejected any notion of raising the retirement age, noting that he had voted for an increase to 67 back in 1983 and was sticking with that number. He was quickly matched in that pledge by Dean, who had once suggested ' gasp! ' raising the retirement age as high as 70. Then, in case anyone was troubled by that departure from Democratic orthodoxy, Dean noted that Gephardt had strayed even further by entertaining the notion of means-testing Social Security and Medicare ' something, Dean hastened to say, that I have never considered. Whereupon Gephardt lit into Dean for supporting at our darkest hour ... the very plan that Newt Gingrich wanted to pass on Medicare. Dean's Medicare heresy? He wanted to slow the growth rate of the program.

— That was then. Now that he's running for president, Dean is in denial. On Social Security, for example, he says there's no need for any changes beyond perhaps raising the amount of income on which payroll taxes are paid, a minor bit of tinkering that wouldn't come close to fixing the problems with the system. He proposed raising the retirement age, he said on CBS's Face the Nation, back in a time where the budgetary situation was a disaster in this country ' as if we're not in even more disastrous circumstances now. You don't have to deal with Social Security, Dean said.

The unsustainability of this head-in-the-sand approach was underscored last week with the release of sobering deficit projections by the Committee for Economic Development, the Concord Coalition and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The groups predicted deficits totaling &

36;5 trillion over the next 10 years, but they warned that the bigger problems lie just over that horizon, as growing numbers of baby boomers begin to retire. The first of them will qualify for early retirement under Social Security in 2008 and for Medicare in 2011. That will be just the beginning; by 2025 the proportion of the U.S. population over age 65 will be greater than that in the state of Florida today. Meanwhile, fewer workers will be entering the workforce to pay for this growing number of retirees, with their increasing life spans. Something has to give, whether it's raising the retirement age, means testing or other major reforms.

It's plain why Democratic candidates fail to face this unhappy reality. Why should they be the party of grim tidings when Bush is all dessert (tax cuts, a new prescription drug benefit for seniors) and no spinach? Still, one listens in vain for some candor on either side. As Robert Reischauer of the Urban Institute put it at the press conference on deficits, it's time to end this period of denial and acknowledge that the country's fiscal problems can't be dealt with by a one-shot deal or through measures that gore only someone else's ox. But you wouldn't know that from the campaign trail.