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Dems, Let's See a Real Debate on Medicare, Social Security

Democrats and Tim Russert have a chance to get it right this time at the upcoming debate.

The Democrats dance again tonight in Philadelphia for another debate on MSNBC. Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) has pledged to increase the heat on frontrunner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), once again taking a page from John Edwards' campaign.

After the Sept. 26 Democratic debate in New Hampshire,

I criticized moderator Tim Russert for the way he addressed entitlements. Not only did he obscure the issue for the public, he also tried to force the candidates to accept a solution: raise taxes. Russert and Clinton's challengers need to improve their discussion on entitlements tonight.

Social Security and Medicare share a strain from aging baby boomers, but there's an immediate crisis in Medicare. The

trustees for Medicare say it will run out of money in 2019 -- just 12 short years from now.

Social Security, however, remains on much better footing, thanks to the

Social Security Greenspan Commission, a bipartisan panel that President Ronald Reagan convened in 1983. The commission recommended raising taxes and placing the revenue in a trust fund. The Congressional Budget Office

predicts negative outflows for Social Security starting in 2019, and the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted of funds in 2046.

I can't remember the last time a candidate won a campaign running on a solution to Social Security solvency. I can recall

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skits making fun of Al Gore and his "lockbox." The issue remains emotional for retirees who want to hear more about protecting Social Security, not wonky discussions of how to fix it.

So I was surprised to see Obama try to draw a distinction between himself and Clinton on the issue. He did this by running a misleading ad in Iowa over the weekend. The ad calls on Clinton to be honest about a plan to fix Social Security, despite the reality that Social Security stands on solid ground for years to come. I guess honesty can be ironic at times.

Obama had gone on record at the last debate saying he would raise the payroll tax on earned income -- it's capped at $97,500 now -- to fund a shortfall, as did Edwards. Clinton chose not to go on record endorsing a tax hike. She instead endorsed Reagan's solution: to appoint a bipartisan commission to solve the problem.

I believe Clinton's strategy works better in an election. Republicans have successfully attacked Democrats as tax-hikers, even though most Dems only propose taxes for the wealthy. This works, because many in the media fail to challenge the supply-side claim that low taxes for the rich grow the economy. Moreover, Republicans say that if Dems raise taxes on the rich, then the next obvious group to tax will be the middle class. Clinton avoided the Republican frame with her answer.

Leaving aside Social Security and tax cuts, the public needs to be educated on the disaster facing Medicare. Rising health care costs fuel the problems for Medicare (

if not the economy in general). These costs were exacerbated by the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 (MMA) because the act disallows the government from negotiating bulk-price discounts from drugmakers.

So here's my advice to Tim Russert and Democrats. It's time to ask and answer tough questions: What entitlements are a priority for reform? Will you modify the MMA to negotiate lower drug prices? What medical costs will you cut to increase the longevity of Medicare?

Perhaps if the right questions are asked, we will start working toward a palatable solution. But it has to happen sooner, not later, because Medicare will blow up in our faces in 12 short years.