Triangulate Social Security by offering a choice of plans

In 1995, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans accused President Clinton of having no serious intent to balance the budget. They said that, while he was paying lip service to deficit reduction, he was doing nothing about trimming spending and, indeed, was still plotting further tax increases.

In 1995, the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans accused President Clinton of having no serious intent to balance the budget. They said that, while he was paying lip service to deficit reduction, he was doing nothing about trimming spending and, indeed, was still plotting further tax increases.

Today, the Hillary Clinton-led Democrats are attacking President Bush, saying that he wants to let Social Security die of its own funding shortfall while he builds a privatization lifeboat in which the rich and the upper middle class can escape.

Ten years ago, the truth was that unless and until Clinton proposed his own version of a balanced budget, replete with substantial spending cuts, neither the nation nor the Congress would take seriously his proclamations of support for deficit reduction.

With the White House, most of Clinton’s liberal advisers urged that he not produce his own balanced-budget proposal but leave to the Republicans the onus of suggesting the cuts necessary to eliminate the deficit. They said that by embracing cuts on his own he would incur public wrath and lose his standing to fight congressionally imposed reductions.

Today, the conservatives in the Bush White House are telling their president much the same thing: that he should not propose his own series of cuts in Social Security because it will subject him to a massive political vulnerability and give the Democrats fodder with which to attack him. They say that he should simply talk about the problems Social Security faces and bemoan the absence of a Democratic plan for saving it, even as he refuses to proffer his own.

Back then, Clinton defied the conventional wisdom of his party and most of his administration and submitted his proposal for a balanced budget, including a broad package of spending cuts that were to pave the way to the elimination of the deficit. But he avoided most of the heavy lifting in suggesting these cuts by proposing to take 10 years — instead of the GOP proposal for seven — to bring about his objective. As a result, his cuts did not trigger the damage his advisers had feared.

Once Clinton had proposed a balanced budget, he could no longer be attacked as insincere in wanting a balanced budget and, at a stroke, the Republicans lost their best issue. No longer could they hide their desire to dismantle an array of important programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, federal education funding and environmental enforcement behind the fa