Beyond one man

For those of us alarmed about federal spending, it's music to our ears: John McCain promises to balance the budget and even overhaul entitlement programs.

Since the long primary season began over a year ago, we were pining for candidates who would make federal overspending a central issue to his or her campaign. Only Fred Thompson did.

But now, McCain seems to be doing so, and we applaud him.

Not only is the national debt over $9 trillion, but future spending on so-called entitlement programs Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is going to cost tens of trillions more as baby boomers retire in the years to come.

Recently, McCain promised to balance annual federal spending by the end of his first term, and to overhaul entitlement programs.

As much as we appreciate hearing that, we worry about the details.

If McCain thinks he can reform entitlement spending with sheer force of will -- even the force of will that got him through five years in a prisoner of war camp -- he's giving himself too much credit.

This job is beyond one man.

Indeed, even if it weren't, does the nation want a top-down approach to entitlement reform? Evidence indicates it does not: When President Bush attempted to reform Social Security in 2005, he fell flat on his face, largely because of a top-down approach.

There were sham hearings at which public "input" was invited, but the public wasn't really invited.

Any attempt to reform entitlement programs must provide more than token efforts at public input. It cannot be imposed on us.

We like several bills in Congress, including the Cooper-Wolf bill -- named for Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Frank Wolf, R-Va. -- that would set up a blue ribbon panel to recommend entitlement program solutions. As with the Base Realignment and Closure process, Congress then would vote up or down on the recommendations.

The reason: Like it or not, our leaders in Washington appear unable to do what's necessary to secure the longterm financial future of the country.

If Congress can't muster the will, then even a strongwilled president needs help.

We appreciate Sen. McCain's spirit, and the fact that he's at least put this on the radar screen.

But this can't be a solo flight. He needs a squadron behind him.

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