Campaign mudslinging by George W. Bush and Al Gore has only sullied the debate over reform of Social Security.
And yet no federal program affects more people - in benefits and taxes - or requires a calmer discussion.
The financial safety net for the nation's elderly has too long been a political plaything without a real solution for that day when the mega-generation of baby boomers retires. Even though the expected shortfall in benefits is some 37 years away, younger Americans must plan for their later years, and need to know where Social Security fits in.
Mr. Gore treats the subject like legions of Democrats before him, as a FDR-era patrimony that Republicans just can't be trusted to preserve. His proposals for change have been peripheral at best, such as paying down more of the national debt. That has merit as a way to strengthen the economy and boost the flow of tax dollars into Social Security. But in itself, it's hardly a way to rescue the system.
The vice president appears much more intent on wielding Social Security like a campaign club. Witness the hyperbolic warnings that Mr. Bush's sketchily drawn Social Security plan will cut the monthly benefits of current elderly recipients.
That won't happen. For one thing, the system has ample reserves at present to maintain benefits even if the Bush plan, which includes helping young people set up private investment accounts, should become law. For another, any such plan would undergo deep review and revision by Congress.
Bush's idea of allowing younger workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in stocks or bonds, however, would indeed divert some money - perhaps up to $1 trillion over a period of years - away from the Social Security Trust Fund. But that money could earn a lot more if privately invested than sitting in a government account.
Still, Bush doesn't say how he'd keep enough money in the fund to pay everyone down the line who simply wanted his or her money saved and paid out the old-fashioned way. That is one of many details to be worked out with a watchful Congress.
The Texan has to be admired for even making the private-investment proposal part of his campaign fare, considering the traditional untouchability of Social Security, especially for Republicans. It's a step, however partial, toward reform. But even this small privatization falls short of protecting Social Security against the next demographic wave.
Ultimately, political leaders will have to face truly tough choices - adjusting the retirement age upward, reducing benefits for wealthier recipients, and possibly raising payroll taxes yet again.
For now, we have one candidate, Bush, who's betting most Americans have accepted the need for Social Security reform and will respect him for at least suggesting change. The other, Gore, is betting that voters are as leery as ever of any change in the country's bedrock retirement system.
This political dynamic deprives voters of needed details and useful discussion. The next president should take the political charge out of this debate, and seek real, thoughtful reform.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society