Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 2005 / 25 Shevat, 5765
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
02/02/05: If Bush's war turns out to have worked, was it worth the cost?
02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate