A whiz kid, magic beans, and your Social Security

It's taken a while, but the Bush administration has found the right voice to trumpet its Social Security plan, Noah McCullough.

A private citizen, Mr. McCullough brings a refreshing can-do, be-not-afraid attitude to the discussion, and he will travel to states in the South singing his praises for the Bush plan.

"What I want to tell people about Social Security is to not be afraid of the new plan," McCullough told The New York Times recently. "It may be a change, but it's a good change." It's such a simple, refreshing message, almost childlike. Of course, that may be because McCullough is a fourth-grader from Texas.

Noah is a celebrity of sorts. The 9-year-old's command of presidential trivia has earned him several appearances on the "Tonight" show, and last year he bested Howard Dean in a quiz - insert punchline here.

Yes, we've come to the point where what is arguably the biggest domestic policy debate in the past 50 years is being handled by a child trivia-champ. Don't miss next week when Ken Jennings of "Jeopardy" explains how the president's foreign policy is a winner. And coming in April, a tap-dancing squirrel tours in support of tax reform.

This town's tether to reality is often frayed, but the opening of 2005 has been something to watch, even by Washington standards, with the Social Security debate proving to be the most surreal main show.

President Bush has taken the extraordinary step of bringing a problem to the fore, the pending solvency predicament with Social Security, and traveled the country to talk up his plans for fixing the problem. Except that his staff can't say how or even whether the solution will fix the problem in the long run. In fact, they can't even really say what the plan is and how it will work, but they promise it's really good - a truly novel approach to sales.

One of the biggest issues with the president's plan is the trillions of dollars it is likely to cost at a time when the nation is running record deficits.

But don't worry, there are solutions, of sorts, for that sticky issue, too.

Last week at a Monitor breakfast with reporters, Newt Gingrich told the assembled that it was high time the nation got the budget back in balance. He also said he was in favor of the president's Social Security plan.

How did he square those two positions?

Easy, he said, you just do the Social Security plan off-budget - meaning you just don't count the money against the deficit.

Mr. Gingrich's idea is ingenious, and would have so many applications outside the government. Thinking of buying a new car? Go right ahead. When the loan company comes around, simply tell them the purchase was off-budget.

Meanwhile, as this discussion goes on, the Democrats have taken a bold stand by saying ... basically nothing.

Oh, they want to preserve the system and they won't let Mr. Bush destroy it and they're sure it can be fixed with minor tweaks here and there, but they'd really rather not discuss any specifics.

They're convinced the president has bitten off more than he can chew on Social Security and are content to watch him struggle.

But the president isn't all wrong. Social Security isn't in "crisis" and there are more pressing issues on the national horizon - starting with Medicare - but Social Security has structural problems and it would be easier to do something about them now than 20 years down the road.

The problem is no one in this town is truly leading - that is, discussing the situation like an adult. The president is out traveling the country offering magic beans that he can't even pay for, and the Democrats are off to the side chuckling to themselves and counting the days to midterm elections.

Political leaders refusing to deal with reality isn't exactly a new phenomenon, but the speed at which this year has gotten off-course is extraordinary.

That's not to say there will be no Social Security reform in Bush's second term. The man has a way of getting things done.

But unless something in the tone and tenor changes, unless someone or some group comes forward and discusses the problems honestly - paging the Democratic and, especially, the Republican moderates, who actually have some power - whatever gets passed is likely to be a mess.

And that's a problem, because the stakes are high this time.

The public is tuned into the Social Security debate and probably willing to accept some changes - perhaps even the inevitable pain of higher retirement ages, higher taxes, or lower benefits.

If nothing is done, voters will walk away and throw up their hands talking about "Washington as usual."

If a bad bill gets through - one with the president's precious accounts but no long-term solvency plan or one that simply isn't paid for - voters will think the problem is solved even as it deepens.

You don't have to be a 9-year-old trivia wiz to understand that neither of those options is advisable.

And if either of them becomes a reality, the fallout will be felt well beyond the next four years.

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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