As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton spar over Social Security, their argument has shed little light on America’s most successful domestic program but has instead revealed unattractive aspects of both candidates. Clinton has proved herself again to be excessively elusive in explaining exactly what she believes and why — while Obama has exhibited once more his own strange combination of naivete and opportunism.

This peculiar debate between the leading Democrats — with John Edwards adding his two cents as well — began when Obama glimpsed a chance to not only portray himself as the brave and forthright challenger, but to question the candor and courage of the front-runner as well. Seizing upon her reticence when the issue of Social Security’s future funding arose at a candidate forum in Iowa, he and his advisers fashioned a strategy of hitting Clinton from both the left and the right simultaneously.

Soon a commercial aired showing the Illinois senator talking to senior citizens with his sleeves rolled up. “If we have failed to have a real, honest conversation about Social Security, it will not get fixed,” he warns them, while the caption scrolls below with promises to oppose privatization, defend current benefits and tax the rich to replenish the program. By suggesting that Social Security faces a problem that must be fixed, he nods to the program’s conservative and centrist critics, especially certain figures in the mainstream media; by offering liberal promises, he appeals to the program’s defenders in the Democratic base.

In that same ad, he returns to his usual themes of bipartisan cooperation and refreshing honesty. “I don’t want to just put my finger out to the wind to see what the polls say,” he says sternly. “I want to bring the country together to solve a problem.”

At this point, someone might reasonably ask what problem Obama is proposing to solve — and why he believes that the Republican Party’s ideologues, who still want to abolish Social Security as we know it, would ever join with a new Democratic president for that purpose. His assumption that the Social Security program poses a problem that he will have to solve if elected president is incorrect. His assumption that he will be able to bring the country together is almost laughably naive, especially after the Bush administration’s humiliating defeat on this issue two years ago. Taken together, both assumptions could be dangerous to the program he is proposing to “save.”

But Obama cannot resist the role of the last honest man. According to him, Clinton is “not alone in ducking the issue. Because conventional thinking in Washington says that Social Security is the third rail of American politics. It says you should hedge, and dodge, and spin, but at all costs, don’t answer.”

Merely by demanding an “honest conversation” on the subject, however, Obama plays into the old tactics used by President Bush and other conservative leaders, who hoped to convince voters that Social Security was on the brink of bankruptcy. In truth, the program will be solvent for decades to come, despite White House propaganda to the contrary.

How solvent will depend on future rates of economic growth, immigration, life spans and a host of other factors, but unless historic trends suddenly turn sharply downward, there is no need to rush into any “solutions” that involve raising taxes or cutting benefits. The president’s alarming assertions about the program’s future insolvency always contradicted his sunny predictions of burgeoning economic growth, let alone the promises of big returns on privatized retirement accounts. It was simply a case of what the president used to call fuzzy math.

But if Obama is mistaken in his opportunism, at least part of the blame lies with Clinton, whose reluctance to speak forthrightly about Social Security dates back to the Bush privatization campaign. As the most celebrated Democrat in the Senate and a likely presidential candidate, she ought to have taken a leading role in the fight to preserve her party’s keystone legislation. She should have said then what she can still say now. And she should tell both Obama and Edwards to stop playing primary politics with Social Security when there are real fiscal issues that require our attention.

Someday in the distant future, Social Security may need adjustments. What we must confront much sooner are the exploding costs of Medicare and Medicaid — and that will mean a new health care system that combines cost controls with quality care and universal coverage. That is what the Democrats should be debating.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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