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If nothing else, Fred Thompson is unconventional

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Peter A. Brown
November 26, 2007

Fred Thompson’s presidential campaign has been unorthodox since Day 1, and his decision to grab the “third rail” of American politics with both hands is a clear indication that he really is a different kind of candidate.


Since agreeing to run after a mild draft effort by conservatives looking to fill the void in the race for a candidate who shared their views and values, Thompson has pursued what can only be considered a nontraditional path.


He has eschewed the traditional 24/7 campaign run by his competitors and expected by the Washington-based mainstream news media, which has labeled him poorly prepared, lazy and lackluster.


Yet he runs second in many national polls of GOP voters and leads in parts of the South. Although in recent weeks, his numbers have dropped.


Now, the former Tennessee senator turned actor is making reforms of Social Security and Medicare—the kind of issues presidential candidates typically avoid like the plague—major campaign topics as he seeks the Republican nomination.


Although some might consider his course courageous, the conventional wisdom, at least inside the Beltway, is that this is akin to committing political suicide. It will put a big, bright target on his back.


Some of his own congressional supporters are distancing themselves from his ideas. They are aware that since the national retirement program was enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt 75 year ago, Democrats have successfully used any GOP attempt to change it to bash Republicans as taking food out of the mouths of the elderly.


And, it’s likely that Thompson’s GOP opponents will try to do the same this time, too. That’s because when Thompson says “reform,” he means making changes in the financing of those popular programs to ensure long-term fiscal solvency.


The changes that Thompson is suggesting are guaranteed to make some voters, and a number of special-interest groups, very uncomfortable because of the financial sacrifice required.


Simply put, you can’t eliminate the long-term projected shortfalls in both programs without raising more revenue or reducing the benefits—neither of which are proposals that candidates typically make when they are seeking votes.


Yet, listening to most politicians talk about these two middle-class entitlement programs—which annually far outspend the Pentagon—you’d think they could miraculously heal themselves without asking any sacrifice from anyone.


Thompson has raised the idea that higher-income seniors should be asked to pay higher Medicare premiums as a way of raising money to help alleviate the projected shortfall in the program that provides health care to Americans 65 and older.


And he wants to change the way cost-of-living adjustments in Social Security payments are calculated. He wants future increases to be based on inflation, rather than wages as is now done. Over time, wages have risen much faster than inflation.


Thompson argues that basing increases on inflation not only make sense, because cost-of-living increases are aimed at allowing retirees to keep up with inflation, but that it would take care of Social Security’s long-term financing shortfall. But when President Bush made that suggestion, which would effect the checks of future beneficiaries, it went nowhere in Congress.


Social Security has become known as “the third rail” of American politics because of the widespread belief that like anyone dumb enough to touch the electrified third rail on a subway track, candidates who grab onto that issue die politically.


Under Thompson’s Social Security proposal, today’s young people would get smaller Social Security checks when they retire than they would if no changes are made in the program.


Yet Social Security’s trustees’ project that without changes in the financing of the system, its payroll taxes will begin falling short of covering its benefit payments in another decade. Around the around the middle of the century, it will go broke.


In that case, today’s young would get nothing at all.


Taking on entitlement programs is politically unconventional. But then that is what Thompson’s campaign has been all along.



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