[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: Bush's Second Term
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Bush's Second Term
September 4, 2004
By DAVID BROOKS
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
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
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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