- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

While the economy, Iraq and the war on terrorism will no doubt decide the 2004 election outcome, President Bush has added two issues that will also be influential.

Defying conventional political wisdom that cautions against raising complex, risk-taking issues in the midst of a tight election, Mr. Bush has thrown into the campaign mix Social Security privatization and reforming the nation’s federal tax code to make the system fairer and maybe flatter.

Signaling he wants to make sweeping economic and fiscal reforms in a second term, Mr. Bush added both of these proposals to his acceptance speech last week (as I earlier reported he would). Together, they showed the president’s agenda is based on bold, even visionary ideas that would change our economy for generations to come.

Once, the merest hint of privatizing the New Deal-era Social Security system meant certain political death for its proponent. But Mr. Bush not only ran on the idea in 2000, many of the GOP’s top candidates stoutly defended it in the 2002 midterm elections and strengthened their majority in Congress.

The absence of any serious response to both ideas from John Kerry’s presidential campaign speaks volumes about how popular wholesale tax reform and private Social Security retirement accounts have become.

Compare Mr. Bush’s confidence in a the heat of a tough re-election battle to tackle politically difficult reforms to Mr. Kerry’s timid, ever-changing agenda — his views on Iraq seem to change from week to week — not to mention the Democrats’ inability to come up with fresh new domestic reforms of their own.

Even The Washington Post, a liberal newspaper that is no fan of George Bush, seems to embrace his Social Security privatization plan. Here’s what it said last month in a lead editorial that stunned many Democrats here:

“These accounts would be allowed to hold equities, which would generate an investment return; this would unlock a new source of money to finance Social Security. If bundled together with modest benefit cuts, privatization could contain the projected growth in Social Security costs.”

But the benefits of Mr. Bush’s plan wouldn’t end there.

“Privatization could also stimulate economic growth, boosting tax revenues, and so strengthening the nation’s fiscal prospects via a second route. By converting the payroll tax into contributions to personal accounts, government could reduce the tax burden on workers,” The Post said.

Social Security privatization would dramatically shift a pay-as-you go system to a prefunded one, the Post added. This would not only boost savings dramatically, it would expand investment capital and save Social Security from bankruptcy.

This is an idea with enormous support among younger workers, especially minorities who like the idea of building wealth over their working lives — wealth they can live on in retirement and leave to their children.

The bipartisan political appeal of Social Security privatization has grown significantly over the decades as more and more workers have become owners of the nation’s corporate assets.

More than half of all Americans now own stocks through 401(k)s, union funds and other investment plans. That is why Mr. Bush keeps bringing it up in stump speeches everywhere.

Simplifying the monstrously complicated and costly tax code is an idea many presidents have talked about but few have tackled in any depth. The White House has had ambitious reform plans on the Treasury Department shelf, but Mr. Bush has been understandably reluctant to invest more of his political capital in so big an idea when he already had more than he could handle after the September 11, 2001, attacks — the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and a sagging economy.

Ronald Reagan, too, ran on tax system reform in his 1984 re-election campaign, passing a sweeping plan that broadened the tax base by closing tax loopholes while lowering the top income tax rate to 28 percent. Mr. Bush has cut the top rate to 35 percent (from the nearly 40 percent enacted by Bill Clinton).

Mr. Bush wants to take one giant step further by making the tax filing system easier, simpler and cheaper. He doesn’t talk about lowering tax rates further (he is still struggling to make the current tax cuts permanent). But administration insiders say additional rate cuts remain one of his reform goals.

It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the positive effect these proposals would have on our country. Elections, it is often said, are about the future. Mr. Bush’s two big ideas, if enacted in a second term, would boost the U.S. economy to far more growth and prosperity than we have ever known.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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