President Bush has made a weak case for the need to create private accounts to supplement the Social Security system. But if he succeeds in getting those accounts established, it will be because Democrats have countered his plan with a vacuum.
Democratic leaders have emphatically rejected the president's proposal to privatize part of the system by instituting the personal accounts, but they have proposed no real plan of their own to deal with future shortfalls in the system. The best way to counter a bad idea is with a better one. Simply criticizing the president's plan does not qualify.
As this page has noted repeatedly, some changes are needed in the Social Security system. There will be major impacts from longer life expectancy and the looming retirements of baby boomers in numbers that will increase the amount of retired beneficiaries and decrease the number of workers paying into the system to fund benefit payments.
But that problem is not at the crisis stage, and has nowhere near the potential budgetary impacts of skyrocketing Medicare costs that are drawing far less public attention. Social Security, left untouched, will be fully funded until at least 2042. Small changes now can fully fund the system indefinitely.
The Bush plan, by allowing diversion of some of today's payroll taxes into private accounts, actually worsens the looming problem and could require massive government borrowing or tax increases to pay current benefits. While personal accounts might work well for younger workers as an add-on, they don't benefit the system if they drain revenues now.
There are other changes that can help more. But Democrats aren't advancing them. Ironically, the best response to Bush's proposal, which still hasn't been fully developed into an articulated plan, has come from a fellow Republican.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, has floated proposed legislation that includes 4 percent privatization but also looks at some of the other cost-containing or revenue-enhancing steps that can be taken -- including upward adjustments in the retirement age to reflect greater life expectancy, reductions in early-retirement benefits and a lifting of the cap on Social Security taxable income.
We still do not support diversion of payroll taxes for private Social Security accounts. But at least Hagel offered an alternative. Now that actual legislation is being worked on, it's time for Democrats to propose a plan of their own. Political strategy may favor sniping from the tall grass, but leadership demands a more open charge.