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Another Bush Deficit: Ideas

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, February 3, 2006

Think of it as the "Is That All There Is?" moment in politics.

It comes to pass when an incumbent president signals that the energy is rapidly draining from his political project. The opposition, if it possesses any sense and creativity, has an opening to move the country in a different direction.

President Bush's State of the Union message on Tuesday was an "Is That All There Is?" speech. The Democrats should be sued by one of their own trial lawyers if they fail to seize their opportunity. The speech had its rhetorical moments, but there were so many holes where policy should have been, and many of the policies that were there didn't much sound like Bush.

The most striking default was on health care, an issue that the president's team has signaled will be a big deal for the administration this year. Bush delivered not a lion but a mouse. He endorsed "wider use of electronic records and other health information technology," promised to "strengthen health savings accounts," pledged to make insurance more portable and issued yet another of his standard attacks on medical malpractice lawsuits.

Hurray for electronic records and portability. But this list does little to help either the uninsured or those who fear losing their coverage. And health savings accounts aren't really health plans. They are tax-avoidance investment vehicles -- Wall Street can't wait -- that will mostly help the healthy and the wealthy while raising costs for the sick. That's not wise.

Here is Opportunity No. 1 for a smart opposition. It's time for aggressive approaches to expanding the number of Americans with insurance. The government should commit itself to making sure that all children under 18 are covered, and workers between the ages of 55 and 65 should be able to buy into Medicare, with subsidies if they need them, because many approaching retirement have a hard time buying private policies.

And it's time to open what might be thought of as both a dialogue and a negotiation with the business community on what the split between public and private spending on health care should be. Businesses that provide broad health coverage are indirectly subsidizing businesses that don't. Businesses that fail to provide coverage, especially for low-paid workers, often count on public programs, i.e., the taxpayers, to pay their employees' health bills.

The system is bad for capitalism, for social justice and for taxpayers. Employers who now pay nothing for health care should kick in to help pay the bills. Businesses being strangled by health costs deserve some relief. And, yes, the government will need to fill the gaps.

When Bush got around to calling for a bipartisan commission "to examine the full impact of baby boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," Democrats chuckled. This from a president who tried to ram through the partial privatization of Social Security last year on the basis of the political "capital" he said he had earned. That capital is gone. The commission is his bailout.

Then there was Bush's line about how his administration had "reduced the growth of nonsecurity discretionary spending." That's cutting the budgetary salami mighty thin. A fiscally irresponsible president who sent the deficit through the roof uses a gobbledygook phrase that excludes most of the budget -- and then brags merely about reducing spending growth in that little piece of territory. Feel better now?

On some issues, Bush simply went over to the other side. Having once battled for tax giveaways to promote more oil drilling, Bush has decided that "America is addicted to oil." Next he'll take out a Sierra Club membership. And that program "to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced placement courses in math and science" sounded like a Bill Clinton idea left at the bottom of some White House drawer.

Oh, yes, and whatever happened to rebuilding New Orleans? A few desultory sentences told us nothing, and everything.

Bush thinks he has a political winner in warrantless wiretapping. Maybe there is one more election for the Republicans in bashing "defeatism," "isolationism" and "retreat." But those words didn't exactly signal the "civil tone" and "spirit of good will" Bush had promised a couple of pages earlier.

The president's foreign policy rhetoric, like so much else on Tuesday, was predictable and familiar. Bush once dreamed of leading a political realignment. What his speech signaled is an opening for a realignment of ideas. His side is running out of them.

postchat@aol.com


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