Bob Kerrey, a grown-up senator

March 17, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Bob Kerrey, the Nebraska Democrat, has a Congressional Medal of Honor because he behaves well under fire. If he seeks his party's presidential nomination, he will draw fire, as he recently did in Tucson.

The occasion was a conference on Social Security. The morning was devoted to deploying facts about the incompatibility of demographic trends and fiscal possibilities, as they pertain to funding promised benefits. Some facts and projections are:

Since Social Security was enacted in 1935, the portion of the population surviving to 65 has risen from 60 percent to 80 percent. The portion surviving to 85 has risen from 10 percent to 30 percent. By 2050, the population 85 and older will be 258 percent larger than in 1980. By 2050, the same percentage will reach 85 as reached 65 in 1935. By 2050, 12 percent will live to 100.

Boldness, honesty, realism

After the presentation of information came responses from the audience and, Mr. Kerrey says, the first five people to the microphones were seniors in a snit about the mere mention of changing the system.

So in his luncheon speech Mr. Kerrey told the seniors he was ashamed of them: Their generation made modern America, defeated the Axis and the Kremlin and knows the costs of life. It knows "that there are times when we have to do things we'd rather not do." Yet now this generation is turning the budget "into an ATM machine."

Mr. Kerrey, the most interesting senator not named Moynihan, has a flair for public-spirited impudence, uttering indiscreet facts. (He famously, because prematurely, said, "Clinton's an unusually good liar. Unusually good.") And here he goes again. The president has proposed, supposedly as a response to soaring inflation in higher education costs, tax credits and deductions for tuition payments. This, says Mr. Kerrey sardonically, "will do for higher education what health care deductibility did for health care" -- that is, make inflation worse.

Inflation already is so bad that total borrowing by individuals for higher education is, Mr. Kerrey says, higher in the 1990s than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s combined. Borrowing is not irrational -- the rewards of college are increasing steeply as the economy becomes more knowledge-based.

But he wonders why government should pump up demand for college at a time of demand-driven inflation in that market. There already are more college than high school students.

Mr. Kerrey, in whose party security (of jobs, of health care, etc.) ranks just below compassion as a virtue, says "there is something to be said for some insecurity."

He also says "the wealth gap is not solved by redistribution but by saving a little over a long time," as Oseola McCarty did. That washerwoman in Hattiesburg, Miss., entered the work force at 8 and left it 78 years later and earned about $9,000 in her best year. In 1995 she donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi. Her secret? "Compounding interest," she says.

Mr. Kerrey, returning to entitlement reform, says the rest of us better start saving and compounding, and reforming an entitlement system under which Ms. McCarty gets a Social Security check of $110 a month and a retired four-star general this year could get a cost-of-living increase of as much as $190 a month. Mr. Kerrey thinks the political risks of reform are exaggerated, noting that last year he got 36 votes in the Senate to raise the retirement age to 70. (If in 1935 the retirement age had been indexed to life expectancy, today retirement would be at about 73.)

He should be president

In Clinton's Washington, time spent with Mr. Kerrey is a tonic because of Mr. Kerrey's sense of irony and detachment, two characteristics of grown-ups and problematic presidential candidates. Political people want a candidate with "fire in his belly," not with a Walker Percy novel in his hand an hour before the big New Hampshire debate. However, Jack Danforth, the retired Republican senator from Missouri, said this to reporter Martha Sherrill for an Esquire profile of Mr. Kerrey:

"I think his detachment is a precondition for courage. If you're desperate -- I must win, the world depends on me winning, I depend on me winning -- well, then you'll say anything to get yourself elected. That's the Clinton problem. He's somebody who doesn't believe in anything at all or will say anything that will help with the audience at hand. Mr. Kerrey's different from that."

Mr. Danforth added: "He should be president." A thought in season, now that Al Gore's halo is akilter.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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