Wednesday, November 06, 2002
Okay, one more political post. I'm really going to go back to deep-thinking stuff after this. Promise. (Maybe.)
There's all kinds of bloviating in the blogosphere about how Bush has no domestic agenda to speak of, and that's going to be his problem going into the '04 elections. Purportedly, his agenda is ending the estate tax, drilling in the Arctic, and appointing conservative judges, an agenda that is both narrow and appeals mainly to the converted. And purportedly, this will leave him vulnerable if, by 2004, the war is off the front pages, or the Democrats have nominated someone credible on defense to oppose him.
This is hogwash. I remember the 2000 election very well, and Bush was the substance candidate in that race. He had a rather extensive and quite bold agenda, much of it domestic. Here's the rundown:
* Tax cuts. Okay, we did one round, but it was a pretty poor show, full of gimmicks and trickery and light on real growth-spurring rate cuts. As I've argued before, I personally favor replacement of the income tax with a consumed-income tax - i.e. an income tax with an unlimited deduction for invested income or charitable contributions. But even if we're not going to have a true overhaul of our tax system, we could still get a package that eliminated corporate loopholes and lowered rates across the board - something akin to the 1986 reform. If the overall effect was to lower the tax burden and simplify the code, this would be a big win, and should be a top-priority agenda item for 2003. I was lukewarm on taxes when the economy was racing ahead in an investment-led boom. Now, with investment in the toilet and the economy limping along on one leg - the American consumer - growth-incentivizing tax cuts are a no-brainer.
* Social Security Privatization. It should be clear by now that this is a popular proposal, and the GOP should milk it for all it's worth in 2004. Young voters support it by considerable margins. Older voters, as the New Hampshire and North Carolina races make clear, can be convinced it will not threaten them. American discussion of this topic is way behind other countries; center-left parties in Europe are in favor of privatizing pensions to one degree or another. Bush deserves the credit for touching the third rail in 2000 and living to tell about it. Now it's time to do something. The only real question is: should Bush run on this in 2004 to win a mandate for change, or should he push something through in 2003? My gut tells me the former, because there are more important agenda items for 2003, and no one will want to have a bill on the table in 2004. And besides, he'll have more GOP Senators in 2005 than he does now.
* Faith-Based Social Services. This is a fairly minor reform all things considered, but it's still a good idea and Bush will now be able to pass it without trouble. And it's quite popular. And it might marginally do some good, though I worry about unintended consequences. Anyhow, Bush needs to pass this because it was a key part of his '00 campaign, and he needs to show he's accomplished something.
* Education Reform. Bush has the chance in the next year to revisit the No Child Left Behind Act and make it into something more like what he ran on in 2000. Rather than sitting down with Kennedy, he should sit down with tractable Democrats who are somewhat independent of the NEA - Joe Lieberman, for example, or Evan Bayh - and toughen up Kennedy's bill. He can't wait until '04, because then these same Democrats will be worrying about the Presidential primaries (if they are thinking of running) or their own reelection campaigns. And he can't wait until '05 because the law has already been passed, so he can't run on changing it in '04. This has to be part of his resume in his next campaign; it'll either be Kennedy's law or something better.
* Tort Reform. This is a tough one to tackle at the Federal level, but it matters enormously to the economy. I'd hope that at minimum he would force Congress to deal now with terrorism insurance and asbestos, two lead weights dragging down major sectors of our economy that our government has been simply negligent at dealing with. But ideally we'd get a more sweeping initiative in '03. I'm not sure of the politics of this, but if he thinks it's a vote-getter this might be a good initiative in '04; if it fails, the GOP can run against the trial-lawyer Democrats and pass the legislation in '05. I'm not sure.
* Energy Policy. I gotta mention this one, 'cause he ran on it in '00, but don't expect much useful. Here, Bush mostly needs to do enough on the consumption end to have something to say in response to environmentalist attacks and enough on the production end to make a small difference to America's energy independence. But really, on the supply end the solutions are in Russia and West Africa, not Alaska, and on the consumption end the main thing Bush could do is tighten up fuel-economy standards, but that would have negative economic consequences in a recession and would be politically disastrous. Everything else is window-dressing. But I do think Bush needs to dress up his Alaskan drilling in a prettier package if he doesn't want it to be a liability in the Blue States, at least some of which he needs to win next time.
* Health Care. Frankly, we could use a national referendum on reforming the Medicare entitlement before it drives us all into bankruptcy. But we're not going to get a major reform without a mandate, which means running on this in '05. I think that's a bit much when combined with Social Security privatization. So I think what we'll get is a more reasonable prescription drug benefit, some kind of expanded coverage for children, and some modest cost-saving measures - tinkering, but enough tinkering for do some good at the margins and to enable Bush and the GOP to go into '04 saying: the Democrats couldn't deliver on their own top priority, and we did.
I'd say that's a pretty substantial domestic agenda, wouldn't you? Pass a strong, sane tax cut bill; the faith-based initiative so dear to Bush's heart; some version of tort reform; an energy bill that hopefully does a bit of good and not too much harm; and a prescription drug benefit that doesn't bankrupt the treasury. Most of the agenda puts the GOP on offense, only a bit of it on defense. And it leaves Bush going into '04 with a serious record of accomplishment and at least one major domestic issue - entitlement reform - to justify a second term.
And then, of course, there's foreign and defense policy. Which, supposedly, will be off the front pages by 2004. So sure? We'll have won the war in Iraq by then. What will have happened in Iran? North Korea? What will the situation in Israel be? In Pakistan? Across the Taiwan straights? Hopefully, Americans will have learned from September 11th not only that we need better intelligence (Bush is doing precious little about that), and not only that we need a larger military (ditto), but that we can't just sit back on our laurels and hope the U.N. or the invisible hand of the market sorts out all foreign problems. There are people out them, some heavily armed, some even controlling significant armies, who want us dead. And they don't all live in Iraq. Think the war will be over in '04? Think again. Some campaign themes will be: missile defense; nuclear proliferation and how to stop it; anti-terrorism assistance to nasty regimes; and the shape and size of the American armed forces. Anyone think the Democrats are going to have the better half of these arguments? The New Republic's dreams not withstanding, I don't think so.
Don't get me wrong: Bush doesn't have a cakewalk ahead. We could have a major setback in the war. There could be another major attack on America. Less alarmingly, Bush could be outmaneuvered in the Senate by Daschle & Co., and wind up with little accomplishment on the domestic side in spite of the GOP majority. But it's nonsense that Bush has no agenda domestically and it's nonsense that foreign policy won't matter in the '04 elections. Both of these being true, what the President has to do above all is not strategize but EXECUTE.
With extreme prejudice.