Saturday, September 04, 2004

Brooks.— Bush’s Second Term

David Brooks.— Bush’s Second Term
New York Times, 04/09/2004.

White House aides like to say that George W. Bush is a transformational president. That’s an exaggeration, but if he’s elected to a second term and acts on the words he uttered on Thursday night, he just might be.

He’s already gone a long way to transform the Republican Party. This was a party united by the idea that government is the problem, that it should be radically cut back. On Thursday night, Bush talked about government as a positive tool. “Government must take your side,” he exclaimed.

He went on to propose a sprawling domestic agenda. Many of his proposals are small or medium-sized, and media rebutters have complained that not all of them are new (which is a ridiculous way to measure a policy idea). But cumulatively, they really do amount to something.

Bush proposes to build community health centers, expand AmeriCorps, increase the funds for Pell Grants, create job retraining accounts, offer tax credits for hybrid cars, help lower-income families get health savings accounts, dedicate $40 billion to wetlands preservation, and on and on and on.

This is an activist posture. As Karen Hughes said on PBS on Thursday evening, “This is not the grinchy old ‘Let’s abolish the Department of Education or shut down the government’ conservatism of the past.”

The biggest proposals, which could really make history, were only hinted at. But Bush understands the crucial reform challenge: “Many of our most fundamental systems — the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training — were created for a world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems.”

In his speech, he redefined compassionate conservatism. The faith-based initiatives are now only a part of a much bolder whole. Bush declared that government should move energetically to help people get skills and to open opportunities. “Government should help people improve their lives, not run their lives,” he said. That is the essence of the party’s new governing philosophy.

The Bush agenda has been greeted with a wave of skepticism from my buddies in the press corps. How’s he going to pay for all this? Why didn’t he do more of this in his first term? Why was he so vague about the big things? Won’t he sacrifice it all on the altar of tax cuts?

But, of course, he’s not going to tell us at the peak of the campaign season about painful spending decisions. He’s not going to specify who is going to get gored by tax simplification. No competent candidate has ever done that, and none ever will. That doesn’t make the policy ideas bogus.

The fact is, it would be bizarre if a re-elected Bush didn’t have a magnified domestic agenda. Periods of war are usually periods of domestic reform because war changes the scale of people’s thinking. It injects a sense of urgency. You can see this evolution in the president’s own thinking.

When he ran in 2000, it sometimes seemed that he was running for governor in chief. But now he is thinking like a president, and his domestic notions are growing to match his foreign policy ones.

Obviously, the administration will have to make some tough decisions. First, it will figure out which of the many proposals it wants to do first. The obvious thing is to do tax simplification first because fixing up the tax code lets you eliminate distortions in health competition, saving patterns and a bunch of other areas.

Second, the White House will probably have to choose between reforming entitlements and making the tax cuts permanent because there isn’t enough money to do both. This is an easy call. Sacrifice the tax cuts. If entitlement programs aren’t reformed, we’ll be looking at a lifetime of tax increases. Modernizing the welfare state is a much bigger deal than some three- or four-point cut in the top marginal tax rate.

It should be said that I do have a voice in my head that says this is all a mirage — that all the reform ideas will be tossed aside for the sake of favors for the K Street crowd. But one can sense a tide in the affairs of government.

Republicans who embrace this limited but energetic government philosophy are in the ascendant (look at the convention speakers). Many Republicans and Democrats are coalescing around these ideas (in truth, several of Bush’s ideas are lifted from centrist Democrats). Besides, Bush may flesh out and promote this big agenda, if only to spite his media critics.


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