Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2005 / 25 Shevat, 5765

Robert Robb

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Prez reaffirms commitment to fundamental conservative reform | President Bush famously disdains small ball, or spending time and political capital on trivial or symbolic issues.

He certainly didn't play small ball in his State of the Union address. It was an exceptionally strong speech, with an ambitious, even audacious, agenda.

On domestic issues, the agenda suggests that there is an important, and welcome, difference between the first-term and the second-term Bush. In 2000, Bush ran as a different kind of conservative. He called it "compassionate conservatism." But by the end of his first term, many observers thought a more accurate description was "big-government conservatism."

Bush did fight hard for tax cuts. But the two other signature domestic policy successes of his first term were the largest expansion of the role of the federal government in local education since Jimmy Carter, and the largest expansion of the entitlement state since Lyndon Johnson.

Moreover, federal spending increased during his first term twice as fast as it had under Bill Clinton.

Now, in theory, Bush was harnessing big government to serve conservative purposes. The federal role in education was expanding, but to advance the conservative idea of improving student learning through testing and accountability.

And, initially, the prescription drug benefit was tied to changing Medicare from a system in which the federal government pays the bills to one in which it offers financial assistance for seniors to purchase private health insurance instead.

But in the first term, Bush consistently flinched from fighting for fundamental conservative reform. He quickly jettisoned vouchers as part of No Child Left Behind to cut a deal with Teddy Kennedy. And he abandoned fundamental Medicare reform to get the prescription drug issue behind him. However, the second-term agenda, as outlined in the State of the Union, is all about fundamental conservative reform.

The president has made Social Security reform his top domestic priority, and personal retirement accounts the fundamental building block of that reform.

Although Bush would phase in personal retirement accounts slowly, he proposed that individuals ultimately be able to put as much as 4 percent of their income subject to Social Security taxes in them.

That's still not enough to truly make the transition from a system that relies on an intergenerational transfer of income, unsustainable given the declining ratio of workers to retirees, to one in which people save for their own retirement over the course of their lives. But it was twice as much as it was previously thought Bush would advocate.

Bush's second top domestic priority is fundamental, pro-growth tax reform. Bush also wants to wean Americans from having others pay for their health insurance, either their employers or the government. That's the only way to get health care costs under control and stave off some sort of total government takeover of the health care delivery system.

With respect to government spending, Bush seemed to announce that he would no longer be such a pushover. The proof will be in the budget details to be released next week, but Bush's opening bid in the State of the Union was pretty good: holding discretionary domestic spending growth to less than the rate of inflation, and abolishing or sharply curtailing 150 government programs.

What might be described as compassionate or big-government conservative measures were, in fact, decidedly small ball: expanding the accountability measures under No Child Left Behind to high schools, a move already anticipated by most states; reauthorizing AIDS legislation; and outreach efforts to mentor at-risk young men and children in general, to be led by First Lady Laura Bush.

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There are some political circumstances and constraints that might explain this newfound commitment to fundamental conservative reform. Bush isn't running for re-election, so perhaps doesn't feel the need to co-opt Democratic issues, such as education or prescription drugs. The deficits don't leave much room for big-government initiatives, conservative or otherwise.

While Bush's commitment to fundamental conservative reform in his second term appears sincere and deep, there is reason to doubt its prospects. Because these are fundamental changes, they are politically difficult.

Accomplishing them probably requires a president who ran on reasonably specific reforms and won. Bush ran on these concepts but was, and in many respects remains, regrettably vague about the specifics. Because of that, Bush probably didn't earn, in his terms, sufficient political capital to get the job done.

But at least Bush has a second-term domestic agenda worth fighting for.

JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.


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01/21/05: Broadness of new Bush Doctrine diffuses focus from the true terrorist threat
01/05/05: Why is this any of the government's business?
12/15/04: Finally a maverick Nobel Prize winner for economics?
12/10/04: The challenge four more years of the Bush administration presents to conservatism's fundamental beliefs
12/02/04: Sportsmanship? What's that?
11/22/04: Tax reform limited by, uh ... tax reform
11/14/04: Empowerment agenda reality check
10/13/04: And what tax rate should Americans making over $200,000 a year pay? Some pre-debate advice for the President
09/24/04: Too many of the wrong people have too much ability to influence public opinion too quickly?
09/20/04: Kerry asks good question about security costs
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08/30/04: Bush's key task: His reinvention as a true uniter
08/20/04: Bush's burdening the Middle Class
08/13/04: For prez to win, he must change his campaigning style
08/03/04: Missing in Beantown was a sense of the art of the possible
07/26/04: Kerry inflated agenda reveals he's failed to truly make the transition from legislator to presidential candidate
07/12/04: Edwards punctuates Kerry fantasies
07/06/04: Kerry ups the ante in bid for Latino vote
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06/25/04: Parallel (political) universes
06/21/04: Al-Qaida-Iraq interaction strengthens case for war
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05/10/04: Border reforms fail on black-market issue
05/07/04: It wasn't Bush's recession nor Bush's recovery
04/28/04: Arizona to become test market on immigration as a political issue
04/23/04: Accusations that the Bush administration has been shredding civil liberties are hyperbolic
04/16/04: Learning the limits
04/14/04: Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
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02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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