Suddenly one of the key issues of the 1984 presidential election involves an old issue that just won't seem to go away: how to fund and manage the nation's primary safety-net retirement benefit program, the US Social Security System.
Such a debate about social security and - to a lesser extent - medicare and medicaid, cannot help working to the advantage of the American public. Social security, after all, touches virtually all Americans, either directly, in the form of receiving current or future benefits, or, in another way, through payment of taxes. What is clearly needed is not less but more public scrutiny of the issue. In other words, let the two campaigns be pressed all the harder on the social security-medicare-medicaid issue. How do they perceive the current well-being of such programs? What would the candidates do to change the systems beyond reforms already made?
Not in the best interest of the American public is the type of appeal to self-interest that is now marking the debate about these programs. Such appeals are unfortunate: They could unwisely limit the future actions of the next president. Appeals to self-interest are also unfortunate because they tend to make many Americans cynical about the political process itself.
Many legitimate questions still need to be asked about the structure of social security, as well as medicare and medicaid. To take just two examples:
* First, social security: Under President Reagan, a bipartisan commission recommended a solvency plan for social security that was subsequently accepted by Congress. The changes were designed to keep the system intact into the next century. But one question that lingers involves the retirement age (now 62 for early retirement, 65 for full retirement). Are such retirement ages still meaningful at a time when Americans live and work much longer than was the case in the mid-1930s, when social security was first enacted? By serving notice that no changes will be made in benefits for either current or future social security recipients - as Walter Mondale and Mr. Reagan have now promised - does that mean that an issue like the retirement age is ''off limits'' to legitimate consideration during the next four years - at least at the White House level?
* Second, medicaid: Most nongovernment economists believe that the system is too costly, that benefits are often misdirected to people who don't need them, and that reform is essential.
Both candidates have not been above political pandering on the social security-medicaid issue. Mr. Reagan did seek to cut benefits for social security recipients. Benefits for widows with college-age children, to name just one group of recipients, were cut at the urging of the White House. On the other hand, the system, including the disability program, needed reform.
On medicaid, Mr. Mondale argues that President Reagan ''went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of medicaid.'' Mr. Reagan says that is not true. But medicaid reform did not largely figure in the 1981 Reagan-congressional social welfare reforms. Indeed, the Carter administration had sought to make cost-containment reforms in medicaid, a reform later pushed by the Reagan White House. The modest changes that were subsequently made involving medicaid were in large part the result of congressional initiative, not that of the White House itself.
In short, then, some solid analysis is needed from the candidates regarding the basic safety-net programs - not just pitches to the political galleries.