With Lamm Running, We'll Get Some Straight Talk on Entitlements

Could former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm's decision to seek the presidential nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party mean that we may finally see a real debate on the future of Social Security and Medicare?

Millions of younger voters can't help but wonder. For while President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole have paid lip service to the idea of preserving these programs for future generations, neither has yet been willing to advocate the kind of politically difficult measures that genuine reform requires.

On Social Security for example, Mr. Dole, in one of his last acts before leaving the Senate, managed to secure the passage of legislation that would only serve to deplete the trust fund further than anticipated by raising the amount retirees can earn without losing benefits.

Meanwhile, Democrat Clinton hit the campaign trail with the even more pressing problem of a Medicare system heading for bankruptcy in 2001. That crisis, the president and his advisers concluded, could be solved through a simple accounting sleight of hand, by shifting some of the expenses normally covered by the trust fund into the part of the program paid for out of general revenues - in other words, by shifting a greater share of the burden onto today's taxpayers.

Of course, the fad of the moment is the series of proposals coming out of the president's advisory panel on Social Security that call for investing Social Security revenues in the stock market rather than government bonds, and allowing workers to place a percentage of their payroll taxes in private investment accounts.

BUT even this idea, which enjoys growing support among many - in particular the young - is relatively toothless when compared with more controversial (but also more effective) measures such as means-testing and sharply increasing the retirement age. Both of those proposals are bound to raise the ire of today's elderly voters.

But that's where Mr. Lamm comes in. With little realistic expectation of winning the presidency, Lamm is free to do what Clinton and Dole cannot: Appeal to fiscal sanity rather than electoral reality.

Pledging to make "generational equity" a theme of his campaign, Lamm can, and in all likelihood will, ignore the substantial pressure brought to bear on his two major-party rivals by the sizable bloc of current and soon-to-be retirees, the vast majority of whom are sure to vote this November.

Instead, he is in the unique position of being able to tell America's youngest voters - including by no small coincidence his own twentysomething children - that he means it when he talks about reforming popular entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Although Lamm probably won't win the presidency by doing so, younger voters will benefit if he can push the debate in a healthy direction. That alone is worth rooting for.

*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."

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