- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 26, 2002

The 2002 off-year elections provide the White House and its Republican allies in Congress major opportunities for policy development and some fairly clear signals as to which opportunities might offer the best returns for the country as a whole.
One of the clearest signals came out of the Florida re-election of Gov. Jeb Bush, which turned out to be a referendum on Mr. Bush's school-choice program. For reasons of self preservation, the National Education Association went red of tooth and claw, accusing the Bush voucher program of at once destroying public education, unraveling our pluralistic society and breaching the separation between church and state.
It did not matter. Mr. Bush carried the day, thus ensuring the opportunity for Florida's not-so-rich to gain access to the kind of quality education that is deemed normal for families of wealth.
The Florida victory combined with the Supreme Court's Cleveland voucher ruling in the spring should allay any concerns the White House might have had about the political vulnerability of vouchers to opposition in the suburbs. The simple fact is that inner-city parents, lacking in choice of residence, want school options in their own neighborhoods, not busing far outside the city. Programs that accomplish this goal and stimulate genuine education reform (as opposed to simply throwing yet more money at the problem) will generate high approval among all segments of the population. Of course, school choice remains primarily an option for states to pursue, but the White House can help around the edges with its bully pulpit, in addition to opposing on First Amendment and equal-protection grounds the notorious Blaine Amendments adopted 150 years ago in dozens of states to block use of state funds in religious schools.
The White House might also consider lending renewed support for a school voucher project in the District of Columbia, in part to resolve the question pressed by the teachers' union whether these programs truly add value. Researchers at Harvard and Georgetown universities have already compiled impressive affirmative data from private projects in New York City, Dayton and Washington, D.C., but a publicly funded program would lay all residual questions to rest for once and for all as well as help meet the overwhelming demand for choice in the District among parents of school-age children.
A second goal would be enactment of a market-based, privately run prescription-drug benefit. Having taken this issue away from the Democrats by enacting a bill in the House and provoking Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle into blocking a vote on a similar bill in the Senate, the Republicans now have to deliver. There are, and should be, questions about the cost, but everyone should realize that the next generation of high-tech drugs and biologicals will be much better than the last generation at diagnosis and prevention, thus promising future reductions in hospitalization and other out-patient health care costs.
Indeed, the legislation should devise and mandate the adoption of Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget mechanisms for calculating the offsetting cost-savings attributable to the benefits of the new therapies.
The final domestic initiative would be to carry on with the President Bush's professed goal of reforming the way judges are selected and confirmed as well, of course, as getting the judges he has already nominated confirmed promptly. This should probably take priority over tort reform at the federal level (which would involve the same (Judiciary) Committee), because the prime object of federal tort reform removal of more state class action litigation to the federal courts cannot be successful if there are too few federal judges to handle the new case load.
On foreign policy, the president has more than a full plate already, so new initiatives are not necessary and might in fact be counterproductive. But the election suggests a word of caution namely, that there has to be further progress on combating terrorism, including a successful establishment of the new Department of Homeland Security and, needless to say, successful prosecution of the disarming of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Any resulting occupation of Iraq will make the United States an immediately powerful member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, with responsibilities that include helping to terminate funding of terrorists groups with oil proceeds and facing some accountability for conflicting goals to keep domestic gasoline prices low and Russia's foreign exchange earnings high.
This will be a delicate tightrope, made all the more difficult by pursuit of the goals in the energy legislation to diversify energy sources, reduce dependence on foreign crude and promote new technologies (like hydrogen fuel cells and renewable fuels). The United States will very nearly find itself straddling both sides of some very sticky and politically sensitive issues unless it can think through in advance how to resolve some inevitable conflicts of interest.
These challenges are daunting, and the president will have no one to try to blame the way President Clinton did after losing the House in l994. But this is, overall, far better than the alternative.

C. Boyden Gray, a partner with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, is former counsel to President Bush.

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