"Depending upon who you listen to, Social Security will be bankrupt in either 2025 or 2030. I feel this is grossly unfair, especially to our younger generations, who are losing faith in the system." That was how Jack Fleck, a retired Air Force pilot, began his question to President Clinton at a town-hall-style presidential debate in San Diego.
While such a statement wasn't surprising (a majority of Americans, particularly the young, are concerned about the long-term future of Social Security), it was Mr. Clinton's answer that caught many off guard: He praised Bob Dole's work on the 1983 Greenspan commission, the bipartisan congressional panel that made modest changes in the system and extended its life through the first quarter of the next century.
Today's problem, however, as both Mr. Dole and Clinton acknowledged in their recent debate (Dole concurred with Clinton on the need for a bipartisan commission to address the issue), is that some new tinkering is now in order if our nation's largest retirement program is still to be providing benefits by the time today's youngest voters become eligible.
But bipartisan consensus on the need to deal with the problem is just the beginning. The real challenge facing the next president and - perhaps even more important - the next Congress, is choosing from among the several intelligent reform ideas that have emerged from Washington in the past few years.
One of the most controversial of these, and one that will no doubt find itself at the center of any plan a bipartisan commission might produce, is the concept of adjusting the yearly cost-of-living increases that America's 37 million retirees currently receive. Making headlines only recently, for example, was the announcement that these monthly increases - which are tied to the consumer price index, the government's broadest inflation measure - would come to 2.9 percent, the highest in four years. Contrast this with proposals to scale back cost-of-living increases, which could save billions of dollars and would extend the life of Social Security at least until the second half of the 21st century.
But none of this will happen if many in Washington get their way. A growing number of would-be "reformers" (both Democrats and Republicans) have been rallying support for this sensible move by highlighting Social Security's future insolvency, but then quietly proposing using the savings from such a change, not to strengthen the Social Security trust fund, but to balance the budget and reduce federal spending.
Balancing the budget and reducing federal spending are both worthy goals. What makes this troubling (besides the obvious - that Social Security won't be replenished as it otherwise might) is the newly emerging political climate where such reform may finally be possible.
Until recently, even hinting at reforming Social Security was unthinkable. The new climate, evident in San Diego, has come about largely thanks to several years of warnings by responsible politicians and activists that, if changes aren't made, the system will be depleted by the time today's younger Americans retire.
Calls for cuts in cost-of-living increases is a measure that was initially, and appropriately, suggested as a means of preserving Social Security for future generations, not as a cost-saving device to balance the budget. To distort this purpose is not only to mislead the public, but is politically naive. It's no secret that retirees are deeply resistant to measures that would result in any lowering of benefits, but polls suggest such moves become more palatable when the savings are used to benefit their grandchildren.
If the next president really wants our 37 million retirees to get behind the kinds of reforms desperately needed to save Social Security for America's younger generation (and the support of this constituency will be key), he will need to begin by telling the truth about the changes under consideration.
And if the truth isn't persuasive (as in the case of the current misrepresentation over cost-of-living cuts), then it might just be time to start coming up with some different reforms.
*Alex Abrams, political analyst for MTV News, is co-author of "Late Bloomers: Coming of Age in Today's America, The Right Place at the Wrong Time."