Fred Thompson is the only candidate speaking frankly about the growing problem of entitlement spending, say campaign watchers.
Where fellow Republicans stick to talk of tax cuts and Democrats say pricey federal programs require more study, Thompson is taking a more risky, head-on position with what he calls the nation's most important domestic problem.
Thompson’s message of fiscal conservatism comes as the nation’s boomers prepare for retirement and are poised to push entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — which make up some 40-percent of the federal budget — to unsustainable levels.
"The one thing that all the experts agree on … is that we're in an unsustainable position economically with regard to these programs," Thompson said in a speech last month before the anti-tax Club for Growth. "You'd think that would be the biggest thing we could talk about, other than national security. So we've got to talk about it."
Thompson intends to unveil a plan for entitlement reform in the coming weeks, his spokesman tells the Christian Science Monitor. Thompson has already been floating ideas, such as slowing Social Security benefit increases. On Medicare, Thompson favors fees for upper-income beneficiaries.
"There is an opportunity for leadership on this issue, because people are not expecting politicians to tell them the truth on this," Bob Bixby, executive director of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition tells the Monitor. "And while you would certainly catch fire from your opponents by putting forth specifics, I think the public would respect that person as a leader for taking a position."
Other candidates acknowledge the gravity of the entitles issue, but have been far lees forthcoming than Thompson.
Most leading Democratic candidates have referred to entitlement spending a long-term challenge, and maintained their opposition to the "privatization of Social Security.”
“Democratic voters are not at all convinced that there's a problem, because they believe in many ways that this is something that was kind of contrived by the administration in an effort to privatize the system," says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "They see people using crisis rhetoric as a big exaggeration."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has not issued a plan, because "we don't have a crisis in Social Security," she told the Boston Globe recently. "We have a long-term solvency challenge we can meet if we're smart about it."
Barack Obama, meanwhile, laid out his ideas on retirement security in Iowa’s Quad City Times newspaper, saying that even though the Social Security system is "not perfect," the problem is "relatively small and can be readily solved."
Analysts say the kind of public debate Thompson is sparking is needed in order for an agreement to emerge. "This is the kind of issue that takes a couple of years to develop a consensus around a solution," says Stan Collender, a budget expert at Qorvis Communications.
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