- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

As Republicans meet this week to prepare their platform, polls show President Bush is in big trouble. It is clear he would like to run his campaign for re-election on his accomplishments, especially the war on terrorism, Iraq and building peace and democracy in the Middle East, and tax cuts and economic revival, something like Ronald Reagan did in 1984. The political problem: It is not clear people now are better off than four years ago on any of these matters.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan have hit tough times and now provoke as much political opposition as support for the president. The August Pew survey finds Americans now say John Kerry could handle Iraq better than the president, and Mr. Bush’s lead on handling terrorism generally has been declining, with less than a majority now saying he can handle it better.

More ominous for Mr. Bush’s re-election chances, the economic recovery appears to be sputtering. The July employment statistics were much lower than expected. The Pew poll found 52 percent of Americans disapproving of the president’s handling of the economy and saying they believe Mr. Kerry could do a better job with it. A majority of Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction and disapprove of the president’s handling of his job, while only 27 percent of swing voters think things will improve over the next year. No president has won re-election with public opinion numbers like these this close to an election.

Mr. Bush’s advisers recently released their preliminary campaign plan for the No. 1 voter issue, the economy. Called “America’s Ownership Society: Expanding Opportunities,” it proposes lowering tax rates on businesses and possibly a sweeping revenue-neutral overhaul of the tax code to broaden the tax base and cut income taxes. A presidential speech in the first week of August added the idea from his 2000 campaign to partially privatize Social Security as a new kind of ownership, and Mr. Bush even said a national sales tax to replace the income tax should be explored. Yet, aside from business, no ordinary person seems to get lower taxes out of the proposals.

Taxes are only shifted about. Indeed, “broaden the tax base” has long been a liberal code word for higher taxes. Broadening the tax base and while further lowering income taxes means more taxes paid by someone else.

Mr. Kerry has already jumped at the sales tax idea as a net tax increase. Social Security privatization, which has much merit as a policy matter, will only exacerbate the existing concern among the elderly about the president’s Medicare prescription drug law. And it is very unlikely present-oriented young people will vote on their retirement, so many years in the future.

What else can Mr. Bush do? He needs something different, unique. Not only is his present platform flat, the new proposals by themselves probably would diminish his re-election chances.

Perhaps getting serious about what everyone quietly knows is a coming collapse of entitlements that threatens the whole economy just might appeal to the few voters who tell the Pew interviewers they are still open to appeals by the candidates.

Mr. Bush has already proposed a freeze on discretionary domestic spending, but no one knows it. He should get serious about controlling spending to avert the coming crisis and call for a budget mechanism to enforce caps on all spending, including entitlements. He should propose delaying the already unpopular Medicare drug proposals that have not gone into effect, saying he has concluded the bill is too expensive and will worsen matters. He should pledge in his platform not to increase liabilities as he pursues Social Security reform.

Would an appeal for fiscal soundness be political suicide?

There is no question the $70 trillion entitlement underfunding is the greatest threat to future U.S. prosperity. The government trustees guarantee bankruptcy unless something is done. Unless President Bush proposes something dramatic, the polls show he will lose. This type of seriousness on the president’s part just might overcome voters’ concerns about Mr. Bush’s flexibility and his prudence, as shown in the polls, and emphasize his strong suit of leadership.

If he does not win, unlike his father, at least he would have the satisfaction he had the courage to propose what was required and that he would be proven right by history.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

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