Private pension and Social Security issues have received more attention in this year's presidential race and in some congressional contests than in other recent campaigns.
Yet, it has not been near enough. The discussions of retirement income matters remain unfocused in terms of defining the issues and proposing solutions. Voters are no more enlightened by, say, the scare tactics of countless AFL-CIO radio advertisements for some Democratic congressional campaigns, than they are by the lack of initiative from some of the Republican candidates.
At the top of the tickets, President Clinton and Bob Dole must share a large part of the blame. The final presidential debate in mid-October failed to stir much excitement on the Social Security issue, in part because the ordinary people in the town-hall format were deliberately mild and vague in their questions of the two candidates on the subject.
In the campaign, Messrs. Clinton and Dole have waved off the Social Security issue by noting their support for the bipartisan commission that has been studying several proposals, including some privatization of the investments. The commission is delaying its recommendation until after the election.
Both presidential candidates want to take the issue out of politics. But that is wrong. Social Security should be very much part of partisan politics. Some momentous changes are in store for the system, if not soon, certainly, and we hope, sometime before 2029 when the trust fund is projected to run out of money. To be successful, any change needs to receive public support.
Why Republicans aren't out front on this issue is a bewilderment. It seems a natural issue for the party that likes to be seen as promoting personal responsibility.
Many politicians on both sides of the aisle fear privatizing the system. In large part, they worry about the ability of people to invest their Social Security assets prudently without taking undue risk or being overly cautious. Yet Social Security is government run and nonetheless in a mess. Politics can be taken out of the retirement income issue. There is one way to do it. That is by turning over responsibility to individuals themselves.
Over the years, one element was missing from the long nascent but now growing debate over the privatization of Social Security: lobbyists for those who could profit from managing the accounts, the money management firms. Academic-type arguments alone could not sway enough politicians to take up the privatization cause to bring it to the forefront of debate on reforming the system.
In the final debate, President Clinton and Mr. Dole failed to give any idea of how they would fix Social Security. As Mr. Dole responded to a baby boomer questionnaire, "Social Security is going to be there when you retire. We'll fix it. It will probably happen in the year 2012 or 2015. In 1983, we thought we had a 75-year fix. It didn't work - much, much less. But at least we fixed it for some time." In turn, Mr. Clinton replied, "So what is in my plan? - and I think it's almost identical to what's in Sen. Dole's plan."
The trouble is neither is willing to voice consistently and repeatedly specific ideas and the philosophical underpinnings for them during the campaign, the most opportune time in our system of government to express positions and disagreements. Perhaps they have no ideas.
For that, no matter who wins the election, the country is a loser.