Battles of choice

February 03, 2005

AMOST HEARTENING, if brief, moment in President Bush's State of the Union address last night was his pledge to help Israel and Palestine become two flourishing democratic states, living side by side in peace at last - an ancient goal he sees now within reach.

If he could advance that cause, and contribute to eliminating the source of so much violence and hatred, it would probably be the single most important step he could take to safeguard this country and the rest of the world.

Puzzling, though, is the urgency with which Mr. Bush has taken up the cause of overhauling Social Security, making it his top domestic priority. It's a bit akin to his decision two years ago to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Neither posed a problem that demanded an immediate, risky, highly divisive debate and response. Both are battles of choice.

Maybe, as with Iraq, Mr. Bush is taking on the politically toxic challenge of Social Security's long-term solvency because he believes, as the first two-term GOP president in more than 80 years serving with Congress under his party's control, that he can bring it off.

Certainly, he's been undismayed by the growing chorus of doubts among his fellow Republicans - not to mention the howling Democrats. Mr. Bush's promise that Americans 55 and older will be spared any reduction of their promised Social Security benefits was an unabashed attempt to neutralize that influential block of the electorate.

To his credit, Mr. Bush acknowledged any repair job will require some scheme of reducing or delaying benefits to future retirees. Those personal retirement accounts he wants to provide for younger workers won't save the system; they'll cost it, big time, unless another funding source is found.

But there are much more urgent problems he could be taking on. Medicare and Medicaid are quickly consuming ever-larger shares of federal and state budgets. The federal budget deficit threatens to undermine the nation's economic security, yet Mr. Bush promises only to try to cut it in half in five years - principally by starving popular domestic programs. His plan for developing energy resources is the same tired old bag of industry subsidies Congress has rejected for the past four years.

Apart from Social Security, the only other new target Mr. Bush seems to have identified for a major investment of his political capital is immigration reform, which will likely pit him against leaders of his own party in a bid to allow Mexican guest workers access to the country.

Even though the president was able to celebrate the first brave signs of fledgling democracy in Iraq, we can't forget the terrible cost that brought it about and the costs yet to come during the years it will likely take for Iraq to meet all the tests Mr. Bush set for withdrawal of U.S. forces.

As Mr. Bush bounds so confidently off on new quests, we urge him to more carefully pick his spots.

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