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NEWS ANALYSIS : Elderly Benefits Turn Into Political Poison : Campaign: Charges fly of plans to cut Social Security and Medicare. Debate is chilled as painful choices loom.


WASHINGTON — The twin titans of federal social programs--Social Security and Medicare--have emerged as the new battlegrounds in this year's elections, forcing Democrats and Republicans alike to make rigid political commitments that could come back to haunt them.

Afraid to touch "the third rail of politics"--the sacrosanct benefits of America's politically powerful elderly--both the Clinton White House and congressional Republicans have been forced to deny the other's campaign charges that they plan to slash Social Security and Medicare. And independent budget and political analysts have argued that such ironclad vows will continue to limit the scope of the national debate on deficit reduction--at a time when creative new solutions are sorely needed.

The latest controversy shows that Americans and their political leaders are still in denial about the need to face up to the painful choices that will have to be made in coming years to put the nation's economic house in order. And there is little question that the nation will have to consider seriously three difficult options at some point over the next decade if it wants to bring the government's sea of red ink under control: cuts in Social Security, reductions in Medicare, or significant and broad-based tax increases.

Indeed, the budgetary math is becoming inescapable. By the year 2004, spending on Social Security and Medicare will nearly double and will be closing in on the $1-trillion mark, dwarfing the projected $669-billion discretionary budget for the operation of the federal government.

Yet today, most American leaders believe that any one of those three options are poison with the voters. Even Medicare cuts are now largely off-limits to budget cutters, except in the context of financing a larger health care reform plan.

"Talking about this is like talking about sex in public," noted Robert D. Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office.

"Everybody knows how you reduce the deficit, but no one wants to talk about it in front of everybody else."

To be sure, the closing weeks of a bitter election campaign rarely provide enlightened debate about complex, structural problems such as how to fix Social Security. This fall's campaign has been no exception. Both parties have tried to turn the nation's powerful senior citizen lobby against the other by warning of the inevitable consequences for Social Security and Medicare if the other side has its way.

The Clinton Administration went on the offensive first this fall, charging that the Republican "contract with America"--signed by more than 300 House Republican candidates in late September--would require cuts in the two mammoth programs to pay for a balanced-budget amendment and for steep business and income tax cuts. The President has repeatedly warned that the Republican plan is a "contract on America" that will return the nation to the "trickle-down" economics of the Ronald Reagan era, paid for with deep cuts in benefits for seniors and middle-class Americans.

In their contract, the Republicans anticipated the Administration's attacks and specifically vowed that they would not touch Social Security. Yet that has not stopped the White House and Democratic candidates from pointing out that the budgetary math behind the contract will not work without tackling the big entitlement programs. The Democratic National Committee has even produced television ads for congressional candidates around the nation attacking the Republicans for being willing to cut Social Security and Medicare.

"Here's the reality: They say they won't raise taxes, they won't cut defense and they can't cut interest on the debt," observed White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta in a Washington speech Monday. "Half of what's left is Social Security and Medicare."

But after enduring several weeks of such charges, Republicans gleefully went on the attack this weekend after they obtained and then leaked an internal memo from White House Budget Director Alice Rivlin to President Clinton detailing a wide range of potential policy options, including tax increases and Social Security and Medicare cuts.

Republican leaders immediately charged that it showed the "hypocrisy" of the Administration. "While they're out blasting Republicans with phony pre-election rhetoric, they're considering a big menu of tax increases. . . . The President has a lot of questions to answer," charged Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).

The White House countered by trying to downplay the entire affair, insisting that Rivlin's memo was merely an "educational" exercise unrelated to the upcoming process of developing next year's federal budget. And Clinton, stung by the negative press attention, stressed that he has no plans to touch Social Security to balance the budget.

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