Bob Kerrey's Honesty on Entitlements

Article excerpt

By endorsing Deb Fischer -- the surprise winner of Nebraska's Republican Senate primary -- Sarah Palin let a competent candidate slip through her normal screening process. Fischer is no Sharron Angle or Christine O'Donnell -- Tea Party favorites in 2010 who seemed to view accomplishment and deliberation as pernicious establishment vices. Fischer is a tough, effective, respected state legislator -- and, in the few polls available so far, is leading her Democratic opponent, Bob Kerrey.

In electing Fischer, Nebraskans would send a staunch, predictable conservative to Washington, which has considerable merit. But Kerrey complicates the choice. Ideological conformity is relatively common in the capital city. Independent thought is rarer. And a Democrat who is keen to confront the nation's largest challenge -- a fiscal crisis driven by entitlement costs -- is rarest of all.

Speaking by phone from the campaign trail in Nebraska, Kerrey rattles off the statistics on fewer workers supporting the benefits of a larger number of retirees as federal entitlement spending squeezes out every other public investment in the general welfare. "Our future as a great country depends on our ability to resolve this problem," he says. It has been his consistent warning since he co-chaired the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform in the early 1990s. And it is the cause that has led him back into elective politics after an 11-year absence.

During past Senate service, Kerrey was known for his bluntness. (He once publicly observed, "Clinton's an unusually good liar. Unusually good.") The trait endures. The main obstacle to entitlement reform, he told me, is the "presupposition that people over 65 can't take the truth. People are afraid of them. ... We need to get people over 65 to look at people under 40, who, right now, are going to get screwed. …