Friday, November 05, 2004

Second verse, same as the first?

Conventional wisdom says incumbent presidents lose when they start unpopular wars for inscrutable reasons. They lose when the economy is sluggish and more jobs have been lost than gained on their watch. They lose when their job approval ratings drop below 50 percent. And they always lose when the Washington Redskins fall in their final home game before the election.

Conventional wisdom is dead. Next?

Next is a second dose of George W. Bush in the White House, something that, to say the least, I'm not overly enthused about, but also something I don't think will end up being as bad as many of his opponents predict. One must never forget that Bush is still the same trigger-happy blueblood in a cowboy costume who for the last four years has been spending our money like he won it in a big Powerball payout, but he's at least talking a good game as he heads into his second term. "Unity" and "bipartisanship" are renowned D.C. buzzwords by now, but they provide some of the only hope remaining for those of us who honestly want to see the country join together again and work toward common goals.

Will Bush's goals be what the country needs? That's uncertain. For one thing, his administration's doctrine of pre-emptive warfare is unlikely to change, and with our military stretched to the breaking point, that could quickly become a problem. Realistically, we face two options in Iraq: 1) Stay there for several more years, which would require better safety equipment and additional personnel (dare we speak the word "draft"?) or 2) Pull out within the next year or so, which, considering the instability there now, would probably result in a bloody civil war that wouldn't exactly be a shining PR moment for the neocon dream of spreading democracy around the world.

The media don't like to talk about it much because it's harder to cover, but the unsecured nuclear weapons in Russia and the other former Soviet republics are a huge national security problem, because if terrorists are going to get their hands on WMD, the black market is the likeliest point of access. John Kerry realized this early and made it an important but largely unheralded part of his campaign platform, even during the primaries. I hope Bush was paying attention. I also hope Iran and North Korea don't get away with continuing to develop nuclear weapons with impunity, but I fear our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq have limited our options elsewhere.

Domestically, Bush's fervent devotion to cutting taxes again and again is here to stay. Call me a fiscal conservative, but it doesn't seem like a good idea to keep spending more money to sustain or launch foreign wars as you simultaneously keep reducing the amount of money coming into the coffers to pay for it all. If I run up more and more charges on my credit card each month and pay off less and less of that debt, I'll be in big financial trouble in a hurry. The same principle applies to our national budget.

I look for Bush to push for two domestic initiatives that look good on paper but would be bad ideas in practice: a national sales tax and a partial privatization of Social Security. The advantage of the national sales tax would be that it only penalizes people who buy things, but that's also its (much larger) problem. The poor spend far more of their income on the necessities of life -- food, clothing, housing -- and would be disproportionately taxed as a result. The national sales tax would be one of the most regressive and punitive policies that our country could ever possibly consider, and I truly hope Democrats stand their ground if the GOP tries to impose it. I can easily see this becoming the campaign issue in the 2006 midterm races.

Privatizing Social Security sounds like a great idea on the surface; what could be better than to let people invest a small amount of the money they would otherwise set aside for retirement and allow them to live out their golden years with the huge profits from those investments? Capital idea, old chap ... except that our Social Security system doesn't work that way. The money you pay in now isn't set aside for you; it's spent right away on the benefits for current recipients. With the Baby Boomers hitting retirement age in the next few years, we're facing a huge influx of recipients and not nearly enough workers to pay for the added costs. Allowing workers to reduce their contributions to the system would only worsen that problem.

All the demagogic campaign talk about a constitutional ban on gay marriage disgusted me, but I doubt we'll see much action on it soon. Gay-baiting is a very effective campaign tool for social conservatives, and I don't see them wanting to give it up any time soon. Besides, I suspect Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, would put his foot down if the amendment train started seriously picking up steam. Abortion is another effective wedge issue, so the fears of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade after the inevitable addition of a couple of new Bush-appointed justices are probably unfounded.

A hundred other issues confront Bush in his second term, but I don't have time to go into them all now. Suffice it to say that if the "war president" wants to secure his desired legacy as "a uniter, not a divider," he's going to have to do much better at compromising and staying open to new ideas than he did in his first term.

Then again, he could always just replace U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist with former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore.


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