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The moderate revolution can extend to Social Security

I once read a cartoon in which caricatured figures representing the left and the right announce their extremism. The guy in the middle says, “I am an extreme moderate.” We need more extreme moderates in this increasingly polarized Congress. Unless we want to avoid national ideological bloodfests like the government shutdown of 1995-1996 and the presidential impeachment of 1998-1999, we have to develop a coherent center in the Senate.

I once read a cartoon in which caricatured figures representing the left and the right announce their extremism. The guy in the middle says, “I am an extreme moderate.”

We need more extreme moderates in this increasingly polarized Congress. Unless we want to avoid national ideological bloodfests like the government shutdown of 1995-1996 and the presidential impeachment of 1998-1999, we have to develop a coherent center in the Senate.

In the past, party leaders in the Senate offered this alternative of moderation, mediating the extreme views of their members and homogenizing them into a coherent and stable political dialogue. But the growth of centrally funded campaigns, dominated by PACs of the left and the right, has made the majority and minority leaders in the Senate the captive of highly polarized and ideological interest groups.

The real meaning of the ouster of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was the triumph of ideological leadership over a more moderate, institutional management of the body.

Frist is the bludgeon where Lott was the conciliator. Frist, drawing on his background as a heart surgeon, believes the answer is to start any operation by breaking ribs. Lott, an innate politician, understands that confrontation is no way to govern and that he needs to massage the institutional dynamic to get it to work.

Now, finally, 14 moderates have taken their place astride the center of the Senate, which is really the apex of its power. Some are there only for the short term, for this fight only. But some, Democrats from Republican states and Republicans from Democratic states, have realized that they will fall between two chairs if the ideological groups dominate the politics of the Senate, as Frist and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would have them do.

Now comes the time for these moderates to take the next step and address themselves to a substantive issue. Taking their cue from one of their number, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, they should form a moderate center to address the Social Security problem.

They should throw out the absurd Democratic position that they will not pass anything that includes any amount of diversion to private investment accounts. And they should also ditch the equally unrealistic GOP opposition to any tax increase.

In the middle, they should let each citizen choose his or her retirement age, mandating higher taxes for those who choose an earlier date and lower taxes for those who agree to a postponement.

Armed with those ideas, they should develop legislation that is acceptable to the broad middle of the country, which understands the need to adjust Social Security to make it financially viable. We all get it that taxes have to go up and benefits have to come down for the system to be there when we need it. But we also want the option to design the package for ourselves and to invest some of the taxes we pay to make our retirement, when it does come, easier and better.

And all Americans, except for certain members of Congress, are willing to subordinate partisanship to the paramount necessity of having a good and financially sound Social Security system. If ever there were a place for moderates to create a consensus, this issue is it.

The harmful polarization of our system, where the right tries to hammer the left into submission by closure and the left attempts to talk the right to death through a filibuster is no place to perform the delicate balancing we will need to preserve Social Security. It is here that we need some statesmanship.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.