Towards A Good Samaritan World

Monday, June 20, 2005

DO-NOTHING FAILURE SECOND-TERM PRESIDENTS ARE GOOD FOR AMERICA

The New Republic regurgitates the bait-and-switch myth about Bush's second term:

[T]he most important explanation for Bush's problems is what might be called his bait and switch. Bush campaigned in 2004 on one set of ideas, but he is pursuing a radically different agenda.


Actually, Social Security reform figured prominently in the most important speech of the year, Bush's RNC speech, where he signaled the thesis of his campaign with the words:

The times in which we live and work are changing dramatically. The workers of our parents' generation typically had one job, one skill, one career -- often with one company that provided health care and a pension. And most of those workers were men. Today, workers change jobs, even careers, many times during their lives, and in one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen, two-thirds of all moms also work outside the home.

This changed world can be a time of great opportunity for all Americans to earn a better living, support your family, and have a rewarding career. And government must take your side. Many of our most fundamental systems -- the tax code, health coverage, pension plans, worker training -- were created for the world of yesterday, not tomorrow. We will transform these systems so that all citizens are equipped, prepared -- and thus truly free -- to make your own choices and pursue your own dreams.


Concerning Social Security, Bush said:

We will always keep the promise of Social Security for our older workers. With the huge Baby Boom generation approaching retirement, many of our children and grandchildren understandably worry whether Social Security will be there when they need it. We must strengthen Social Security by allowing younger workers to save some of their taxes in a personal account -- a nest egg you can call your own and government can never take away.

In all these proposals, we seek to provide not just a government program, but a path -- a path to greater opportunity, more freedom and more control over your own life.


This was a statement of political philosophy and a plan of action clearer than any politician has offered America for many years. Kerry offered nothing comparable. And the polls show how positively the public reacted. Immediately after the RNC speech, Bush picked up a lead of some 7% in the polls which he mostly maintained thereafter. It was the RNC speech, in which the ownership society and Social Security reform were central themes, that more than any other moment was the turning point of the race.

Moreover, a majority of Americans continue to support Social Security private accounts. What the slide in Bush's approval ratings shows is that, though most Americans didn't think the Democrats were the best choice this time around, they still trust them, and when they see the Democrats standing united against a Bush policy, they believe that the policy is a bad idea even if they like the plan when asked about its features outside the context of partisan politics.

But what interested me most in the New Republic's article was their point about a general pattern of failure for second-term presidents. Combine that with a remark from Fred Barnes about the popularity of do-nothing presidents:

It's sad but true that our political system, assuming the economy is not in the tank, rewards presidents (and sometimes governors) for doing little. President Clinton benefited from this. His second term was largely unproductive. He balked at Social Security or Medicare reform. The war he fought in the Balkans consisted of bombs dropped from such high altitudes that American warplanes faced minimal risk. He refused to consider sending ground troops. The result: no American casualties. He did nothing to ease the stock-market bubble or deal with the looming recession. He got along with France...

President Reagan, while hardly as unproductive as Clinton in his second term, also profited a bit from the do-little syndrome. His approval rating in June 1985 was 58 percent, well above Bush's today. True, he achieved tax reform, but that was at a time when leading Democrats were on board. And he got along famously with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, all the while marching toward victory in the Cold War. But Reagan had quickly abandoned Social Security reform when the Senate frowned on it and declined to fight for serious spending cuts. Had he pursued those issues in his second term, his popularity would no doubt have sagged.


There's nothing "sad" about Americans preferring lazy second-term presidents. Americans don't like activist government, and that's just fine. They're suspicious when they hear rumors of big changes emanating from Washington. With good reason: many of the big changes emanating from Washington in the past have been changes for the worse.

If you combine Ryan Lizza's insight that second-term presidents generally fail, and Fred Barnes' insight that do-nothing presidents are usually popular, you understand part of the reason why I was optimistic about a second Bush term. Despite Bush's labors, politics these four years are likely to feature a good deal of bitterness but much less action. And that's mostly good for the country. (Even Social Security reform, though I would LOVE to see that disgraceful program overhauled, can maybe wait. Bush has sowed the seeds. Sooner or later they'll grow into reform.)

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