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The Bush Record

From His 'Great Goals' of 2000, President's Achievements Mixed

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2004; Page A01

NEW YORK, Sept. 1 -- George W. Bush accepted the Republican presidential nomination in Philadelphia four summers ago with a speech packed full of ambitious campaign promises.

He would overhaul Medicare, Social Security and public education; cut taxes; reinvigorate the military; restore civility to the political system; and help the poor with tax credits for health insurance, assistance buying homes and charitable-giving incentives. "We will use these good times for great goals," he said. "We will confront the hard issues."


Four years ago, Republican nominee George W. Bush rehearsed an acceptance speech containing a menu of ambitious campaign promises. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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Thursday night, President Bush will accept the party's nomination for a second term here with a mixed record on those hard issues. On some -- tax cuts and education -- he made enormous progress toward his goals. On others -- Medicare, the military and his "compassion" agenda -- he made partial progress. And on the rest -- Social Security and attempting to "change the tone" of Washington -- nothing much has changed.

Bush's 2000 acceptance speech was widely seen as having successfully introduced the nation to a leader with strong principles, clear policies and a determination to return dignity to the Oval Office after President Bill Clinton's scandals. The speech's main refrain -- "They had their chance. They have not led. We will." -- neatly encapsulated Bush's message to the largest audience the relatively little-known Texas governor had ever faced.

But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, made the Bush presidency largely unrecognizable from the one he outlined in Philadelphia. He did not even mention terrorism in that speech, and the speech reflected the country's inward-looking priorities. After promising a "humble" foreign policy on the stump, his main non-domestic proposal that night was for a missile defense system first debated two decades earlier.

Sept. 11, said Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot, "redefined the planet." And it would be impossible to assess Bush's work toward his campaign promises without considering the way the attacks necessitated an entirely new agenda for his presidency: a Department of Homeland Security, the USA Patriot Act, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al Qaeda.

Even so, a look at Bush's record on his original promises shows that he was more successful at achieving specific policies such as tax cuts and changes in federal education support than he was at translating into specific achievement the broader promises he used in 2000 to present himself as "a different kind of Republican" -- a promise of bipartisan cooperation and help for the poor and disadvantaged.

This pattern could be reinforced if Bush wins a second term. Bush's hard-fought victories on tax cuts and national security have turned him into a polarizing figure, reducing the chances that he can command the sort of bipartisan majorities needed for ambitious proposals such as restoring Social Security's solvency, according to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said this week that he is "more concerned" about the loss of bipartisan cooperation than any other issue, including terrorism. "This administration made some big mistakes at the front end," he said. "They didn't develop relationships on the Hill." Hagel said he told Bush in early 2001 that "you're going to need the trust and relationships that you build on Capitol Hill. They didn't do that."

Campaign aides to Sen. John F. Kerry, Bush's Democratic opponent, put Bush's vow in 2000 to be a "uniter, not a divider" at the top of a list they have compiled under the title "Bush's Broken Promises."

Other unmet promises on the Democrats' list: Social Security, an HMO patients' bill of rights, a promise to renew the assault weapons ban, and his vows not to engage in nation building or to overcommit the armed forces. "President Bush made a lot of promises during his 2000 presidential campaign. The record shows it was all talk," said David Sirota of the anti-Bush Center for American Progress.

The Bush campaign says that Bush has done his part to encourage bipartisanship but that Democrats have not joined him. "His example has been steady throughout," said Racicot, asserting that Bush has refrained from personal attacks on his opponents.

In its own document, "Promises Kept," the Bush campaign is silent on Social Security and reducing partisanship. Rather, the campaign counters that the president has achieved many other of his promises beyond tax cuts and education: a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, a ban on what critics call "partial-birth" abortions, and progress on matters including homeownership and missile defense.

"Even with what happened" on Sept. 11, said Racicot, "I think you'll find an extraordinarily large number [of promises] have been accomplished."

Social Security Remains Unrepaired

In his acceptance speech four years ago Bush outlined what he considered the hard issues -- "threats to our national security, threats to our health and retirement security, before the challenges of our time become crises for our children. And we will extend the promise of prosperity to every forgotten corner of this country."

Saying he would "write not footnotes but chapters in the American story," Bush memorably dismissed the Clinton years: "Our current president embodied the potential of a generation. So many talents. So much charm. Such great skill. But, in the end, to what end? So much promise, to no great purpose."

First on Bush's list that night was reforming Medicare and Social Security. "We will strengthen Social Security and Medicare for the greatest generation and for generations to come," he promised. He vowed to put Medicare on "firm financial ground" and to make prescription drugs "affordable" for Medicare recipients.

And Social Security, he said, "has been called the third rail of American politics, the one you're not supposed to touch because it might shock you. But if you don't touch it, you cannot fix it. And I intend to fix it."

Four years later, Social Security is untouched and unfixed. And, with the government going from budget surplus to deficit, Bush has also had to retreat on his promise not to spend the Social Security surplus. With Sept. 11 distracting his administration's attention, and bitter partisanship making success unlikely, Bush retreated. He did appoint a commission to study the matter, but the White House did not pursue the restructuring and the private savings accounts for younger workers that Bush proposed.

On Medicare, Bush got half of what he wanted. Last year, he succeeded in getting a prescription-drug benefit through Congress -- the first in the Medicare program's four-decade history. The expansion wound up costing double what Bush projected and produced protests from many of Bush's fellow conservatives. But while the Medicare legislation made nods toward structural changes in the program, it did little to address the program's long-term solvency or to control increasing costs.

Second on Bush's list four years ago was a promise of more accountability in schools, an end to "social promotion" of unqualified students, and making sure all children can read.

The No Child Left Behind legislation passed a year into the president's term with broad bipartisan support requires new reading and math standards in grades three through eight. The legislation also increased pressure on underperforming schools to give new options to students, including charter schools.

But Democrats charge that Bush has failed in his promise to increase education funding, complaining that he has proposed education spending at levels far below those agreed to in the No Child Left Behind legislation. They also say that while Bush promised to "fully fund" the Pell grant program for college students by increasing the maximum first-year grant to $5,100, he has frozen the maximum grant at $4,050 in his 2005 budget. Even so, federal education funding has increased (in large part because Congress approved more than Bush requested) and the Pell grant program has expanded.

Third on Bush's acceptance speech agenda was tax cuts. He promised a major reduction in taxes, including abolition of the estate tax and a reduction in all tax rates, including lowering the bottom rate of 15 percent. Though Democrats complain about the fairness of Bush's tax cut, it is undeniable that he has largely fulfilled his promise. Federal income taxes for most taxpayers have been reduced, the bottom rate is now 10 percent, and the estate tax is set to be eliminated in 2010, albeit temporarily.

On the other hand, Bush has not made good on another promise from Philadelphia -- to reform the tax code -- and he plans to return to the subject in his speech Thursday. And he did not meet his campaign promise -- unmentioned in his acceptance speech -- to keep the budget balanced.

"There is money enough to take care of Social Security," he said in January 2000. "There is enough money to meet the basic needs of our government. And there is enough money to give the American people a substantial tax cut."

With the federal budget now in a record-level deficit, Bush said he made exceptions in the campaign for war, recession, and national emergency -- but there is no record of him mentioning such a caveat during the campaign.

Fourth on Bush's list during his acceptance speech came foreign policy and defense. In retrospect, Bush's promises that night regarding the military were relatively modest: better pay, better equipment, fewer nuclear weapons, and the start of a missile defense system. And the Bush campaign lists many accomplishments in those areas: Libya abandoning its nuclear ambitions, the exposure of a nuclear proliferation ring in Pakistan, and Bush's proposal of an international "Proliferation Security Initiative." In addition, the first components of a missile defense system will go online later this year, and Bush says pay for the troops is up almost 21 percent.

Democrats say Bush has not done enough on nuclear proliferation. For example, despite his professed support for the Nunn-Lugar threat reduction program, which helps to prevent spread of the old Soviet nuclear weapons, Bush's 2005 budget proposes cuts to Nunn-Lugar efforts. Democrats also say the military's engagement in Iraq -- which has forced extended tours of duty and activation of reserves -- violates Bush's promise not to "overextend" the military, which he accused Bill Clinton of doing during the 2000 campaign.

The last item on his list was critical to Bush's success in reaching moderate and Democratic voters -- a range of social policies loosely grouped under what the White House calls his "compassion agenda." These included boosting religious charities, help with housing and health insurance for low-income Americans, a new round of welfare reform and a tax credit that would boost donations to charities.

Bush did create a White House office for "Faith Based and Community Initiatives" and passed modest housing and adoption initiatives. But legislation aimed at increasing the role of religious charities was foiled by disputes over discrimination. And the centerpiece of Bush's effort, a 10-year, $90 billion plan to increase charitable donations by giving deductions to those who do not itemize tax returns, was cut to $ 6 billion by the House in agreement with the White House, and never passed the Senate. Bush's promised welfare legislation has been postponed.

The 2000 Bush campaign faulted Clinton for an expansion in the rolls of the uninsured, to 43 million, and said, "Bush will reverse this trend by making health insurance affordable for hardworking low-income families." But that did not happen, and the number of uninsured continued to grow -- by about 5 million during Bush's presidency -- along with health care costs. The White House, which blames Congress, routinely asked lawmakers for tax credits for health care but never made the issue a top priority.

Bush made good on another of the social-policy promises in his acceptance speech, signing a ban on the procedure known as "partial-birth" abortions after Clinton thwarted years of legislative efforts to do so. But another promise -- "enforcing our nation's gun laws" -- has been undermined by his turnabout on his pledge to renew the ban on assault weapons.

That was not the only instance of Bush reversing course from the policies he endorsed in the campaign. He dropped his opposition to campaign finance reform, nation building, and hybrid-powered cars. And he almost immediately dropped his pledge to put limits on carbon dioxide emissions; the White House said the original promise to do so had been a mistake.

A More Pointed Partisan Tone

Many of the policies Bush has failed to implement -- energy, patients' rights, Medicare, Social Security and welfare reforms, and help for religious charities -- have a common culprit: partisan disputes on Capitol Hill. Some of that was to be expected because of Bush's election controversy and the near-parity of the two parties in Congress.

"I don't have enemies to fight," Bush said in his acceptance speech. "I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years. I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect."

Instead, lawmakers in both parties say the tone may be worse than ever. Bush's use of recess appointments to put controversial judges on the bench has inflamed Democrats. The administration's reluctance to share information with Congress has produced bitterness. And the very style that allowed Bush to pass his tax cuts in 2001 -- a refusal to compromise -- made lawmakers reluctant to cooperate on other issues.

After a brief period of bipartisan support following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush actively campaigned against Democrats in the 2002 elections, charging that they cared more about special interests than about Americans' security. The relationship reached a new low this summer when Vice President Cheney, approached by a Democratic critic during a photo-taking session on the Senate floor, at first recoiled and then dispatched the senator with a vulgar phrase.

Bush campaign senior strategist Matthew Dowd said Wednesday that with the parties at near parity, a new tone is unlikely. "He'd like it to be that way," Dowd said, referring to the president. "It's hard to move that way."


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