As Fred D. Thompson moves around the country delivering his folksy stump speech, he routinely makes his way through a laundry list of top concerns: national security, immigration reform, federalism and activist judges, among others.
But he seems most energized when he discusses the ballooning cost of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, and what he calls a need for more fiscal responsibility and less government in Washington. It is a recurring campaign theme of his.
Mr. Thompson, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, made his greatest plea for the presidency, for instance, at the end of such remarks this week at a stop in Greenville, S.C., saying: “We’re going to be going through the Social Security surplus before long, along with the pork barreling and spending and the regular stuff that’s going on now, we’re seeing a demographic change.”
“No politician wants to face up to it,” he said. “We’ve got to send a message to Washington that we are better than that. And you can do that by electing a president who will blow the whistle on that irresponsibility for what it is — and I am that man.”
Strategy carries risks
Audiences usually break into enthusiastic applause at this point, adding spark to a kickoff campaign tour that some analysts have seen as lackluster. But political analysts and others say Mr. Thompson’s focus on issues like entitlements and spending could be risky and, if discussed honestly and in-depth, carries the potential of alienating large segments of the population: the elderly who benefit from such programs and the workers whose payroll taxes may be increased to support baby boomers in their retirement.
“It’s a treacherous track on the entitlement question,” said Michael Franc, vice president of government relations at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Voters tend to gravitate toward the free-lunch rhetoric and believe the unbelievable.”
Experts agree that the current path of entitlements is economically unsustainable given the demographic shifts under way in American society. The first wave of baby boomers will be eligible for early retirement next year, marking a turning point, analysts say, that will eventually force hard choices, including whether to require workers to pay more into the Social Security and Medicare systems and whether to scale back benefits for retirees or raise the age at which retirees are eligible for benefits.
Light on details
Mr. Thompson has been characteristically vague when it comes to detailing a strategy to combat the looming crisis, although in a recent interview with The Washington Post he said he would have opposed the recent prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients, calling it “a $17 trillion add-on to a program that’s going bankrupt.” Pressed for more specifics, his campaign offered few details yesterday.
Washington has been reluctant to touch Social Security, which last went through major changes in 1983, after a bipartisan commission tried to assure its long-term solvency through a mix of benefit reductions cuts and tax increases. Experts say another fix is now needed.
“The dilemma candidates now face is that if you tell the truth about the hard choices and where you stand, you might not get elected,” said David R. Gergen, professor of public service at Harvard University and an adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“But if you don’t tell the truth and manage to win, you can’t govern,” Mr. Gergen added. “It’s clear Thompson is trying to reach the conservative base and say, I care about your concerns.”
A delicate dance
The problem is not just Mr. Thompson’s. Other candidates, Republican and Democratic, are also doing a delicate dance around the issue. But it is perhaps most acute for Mr. Thompson because he is positioning himself as the small-government conservative in the race.
He proclaims the fact that he voted for tax cuts while in the Senate, and against bills that he said included wasteful spending, including one farm measure. He voted for the No Child Left Behind education bill, a stance that has caused him some regret on the campaign trail. (He has said that at the time he did not realize what the ultimate outcome would be.)
Enough of a differentiator?
Mr. Thompson often cites the future burden of government spending, but usually with broad generalizations. In Greenville last week, he said, “One thing that concerns me is that while our attention is there and our economy right now is good, so many in Congress are busily at work — and that in itself ought to make you concerned — they’re busily at work spending the money of future generations.”
At another point he said, “I wonder what these kids would say, I wonder what the unborn would say if they had a seat at the table, what they would say to us, what they would think about us.”
To some extent, Mr. Thompson cannot afford not to talk about such issues. “Basically the whole game for any Republican right now is base mobilization,” said Jack M. Burkman, a Republican strategist and lobbyist. “Whoever gets their base out the best on Feb. 5 is going to be the nominee. Those are hot-button issues for different parts of the base.”
But going forward, Mr. Thompson will probably be pressed to outline his plan for dealing with entitlement spending.
“What does he stand for?” asked Stephen Hess, a professor at George Washington University who has worked for two Republican presidents. “Being for small government ain’t sufficient in the Republican Party.”