What does the war on terrorism have to do with the privatization of Social Security and the possibility of a national sales tax?
Nothing. And everything.
In the final days of this campaign, voters have to consider not just whom they should vote for but also how their votes will be used by those they elect. President Bush wants to win by twisting and distorting John Kerry's record on terrorism. Bush proposes to win by persuading the persuadable that in a time of danger, it's safest to stick with the guy in power.
But Bush also has a remarkably broad agenda to change the Social Security and tax systems. He's not big on the specifics. Yet if Bush is reelected, he will claim a domestic mandate that will come as a surprise to many who voted for him. We know this because Bush lacked a policy mandate in 2000 -- he didn't even win the popular vote -- and nonetheless pushed through two rounds of tax cuts tilted to the wealthy that have built those staggering long-term deficits. In 2004, voters should pay attention to the mandate behind the curtain.
Begin with Bush's distortions of Kerry's record on terrorism. Here's Bush in Mason City, Iowa, on Wednesday: "Senator Kerry was recently asked how September the 11th had changed him. He replied, 'It didn't change me much at all.' And this unchanged worldview becomes obvious when he calls the war against terror primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation, rather than what I believe: a war which requires the full use of American power to keep us secure."
By taking seven of Kerry's words out of a much longer statement, Bush twisted his opponent's position beyond recognition. Here is journalist Matt Bai's account, in the New York Times Magazine article Bush was citing, of what Kerry actually said when he was asked how Sept. 11 had changed him:
"I mean, it didn't change me much at all. It just sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. I mean, to me, it wasn't as transformational as it was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren't doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it." Bai added: "Kerry did allow that he, like other Americans, felt less safe after 9/11." Not exactly the guy Bush described.
But if Bush will say whatever it takes about terrorism to win reelection, what will he do with his victory? Bush often says that he wants to allow individuals to invest part of their Social Security tax payments in personal accounts. What he doesn't say is how he will cover the transitional costs of at least $1 trillion over a decade. He would guarantee current recipients and those near retirement what they are due under the present system, but he won't say how much he would cut the existing guaranteed benefit for future recipients. All privatization plans that claim to reduce the long-term costs of Social Security, as Bush says his would, are based on cuts in future government benefits.
Bush skimps on the details because he knows the details are the unpopular part of his idea. Those who say Bush will have to propose benefit cuts are accused of "scaring" people. But voters should be scared when politicians talk about the benefits of their grand schemes and don't level with them on the costs.
The same is true of Bush's promise of "fundamental tax reform." All the evidence -- from bills introduced in Congress and from ideas floated by the administration -- suggests that Republicans want to shift the tax burden away from investment and savings and toward wages and consumption. That's a recipe for putting even more of the total tax burden on lower- and middle-income people and less of it on the wealthy. In August, Bush even described a national sales tax as "the kind of interesting idea that we ought to explore seriously." The White House quickly backtracked, and no one has done much since to pin Bush down.
Some conservative legislators have put forward detailed proposals for a national sales tax and Social Security privatization. I think these ideas are a mistake, but I admire the willingness of these politicians to open their plans to public scrutiny. Bush, on the other hand, hides the details. He wants to get himself reelected by talking about terrorism -- and he will inform the electorate only after Nov. 2 that they voted for a lot of other things that they never heard much about.