WASHINGTON — Here is a headline not seen: “Cautious Clinton abandons reserve and reveals a stunning truth.”

This isn’t a story about how Hillary Rodham Clinton gave birth to an alien baby, a tabloid headline she once told me she had glimpsed as she raced through the Albany, N.Y., airport. This is the sort of excitement that might have greeted Clinton’s conclusion that Social Security is not in crisis.

But it didn’t.

The media reaction to this remarkable pronouncement consisted mostly of hand-wringing about how the leading Democratic presidential contender has no plan to fix a system that she says does not need immediate repair. That, combined with right-wing furor over the fact that candidate Hillary Clinton’s position is different in the 2008 presidential campaign from what her husband’s was in 1998 is about all that’s been said concerning Sen. Clinton’s gambit that turns conventional Washington wisdom upside down.

“Don’t you believe all these people running around crying wolf about Social Security,” Clinton said in a speech on retirement security in Iowa. “That is exactly what they’re doing. They’re trying to get people confused and upset and agree to a bad deal.” Then, in a Washington Post interview, Clinton said of the giant retirement and disability-insurance system: “I do not believe it is in a crisis.”

Plain language can be incendiary because often it’s true.

For about two decades, political conservatives, Wall Street-backed think tanks and a harping chorus of supposedly expert panels — many stacked with members from those very same think tanks, whose work is bankrolled by the financial industry — have pounded out a steady rhythm of disinformation about Social Security. Variations on the theme are that Social Security is “going bankrupt,” or can’t survive the baby boomers’ retirement, or is a Ponzi scheme built upon a foundation of “worthless IOUs” — that is, U.S. government bonds. In keeping up this particular part of the drumbeat, it is never mentioned that there’s never been a default on such bonds.

The miasma was thick during the 1990s, when stock values were soaring and it seemed for a while that even a clerk might do better with a mutual fund than a supposedly meager Social Security check. Then President Bush sought in 2005 to capitalize on the myths — and told a few whoppers of his own — with his politically disastrous proposal to change Social Security from a system of government-guaranteed payments to one in which individuals finance their retirements mostly through private investments.

Through it all, too many Democrats quaked with worry over being politically outfoxed by conservatives. They feared Republicans somehow would find a way to rob them of FDR’s mantle. As they sought to stop Bush’s plan, House Democrats privately pressed Nancy Pelosi, then the Democratic minority leader, to come up with a “plan” to “save” Social Security as a way of countering the president. She refused.

That’s partly why Clinton can now speak truth to nonsense.

Social Security can pay full benefits until 2041, according to the latest report by the plan’s trustees. By then, the baby boomers will be dying off. The oldest among them would be 96; the youngest, 77. Even after that, the system would be able to pay benefits which, in real terms, are larger than they are today, according to economist Mark Weisbrot, who co-authored the 1999 book “Social Security: The Phony Crisis.”

With the system sufficiently financed to fund more than three decades of benefits, there’s no near-term “crisis” to address. And even if Congress were to come up with legislation that would close Social Security’s long-range deficit, “the changes needed are less than what we did in the ’50s, ’60s, the ’70s and the ’80s,” Weisbrot says. “That’s the end of the story, as far as I’m concerned.”

But this has been the story that won’t die. That it’s a tall tale has never mattered to a chattering class that needs crisis to sustain the chatter. Clinton’s stature as the Democrats’ leading candidate could change the presumptions. “The fact is, everyone thinks it’s a crisis,” says Dean Baker, Weisbrot’s co-author. Baker says Clinton’s position is “encouraging, because it’s true. Also, because of where it indicates she will go in policy.”

Still, she’ll be chastised for being evasive or downright cowardly, and undoubtedly be accused of failing to articulate the “tough choices” to be made on Social Security. But the easy way out is for a candidate to buy into conventional wisdom, even when there’s nothing wise about it. The tougher choice is standing up for the truth.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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