When democratic nations face foreign policy challenges, their leaders usually pursue domestic policies designed to promote social solidarity and national unity.
Winston Churchill, to pick one of history's most important examples, was acutely aware of the need to rally Britain's poor and working classes and give them a stake in victory over Hitler. And so it was under the auspices of the last century's greatest conservative that the foundations of Britain's robust system of social insurance were laid.
After Secretary of State Colin Powell's powerful presentation at the United Nations on Wednesday, it's hard to doubt that the United States is on the verge of war with Saddam Hussein. Although many Americans still have qualms about this war, most agree with Powell that Hussein is both inhumane and dangerous.
But there is a great difference between Churchill's war leadership and President Bush's. Churchill recognized that a time of war places a special obligation on the governing classes to those who benefit least from a nation's social and economic arrangements. Bush, on the other hand, is doing all he can to benefit the economic elites and, through stealth, to undercut government's commitments to the least fortunate.
This is not a liberal fantasy. Conservatives acknowledge that Bush's long-term goal is to reduce the federal government's capacity to act -- yes, to spend -- without saying so publicly. The large tax cuts the president has put on the table, conservative columnist Donald Lambro wrote candidly this week, "are, in effect, Mr. Bush's stealth initiative to curb future spending -- big time." Exactly. And if you look carefully, most of the spending cuts will be in programs for the poor and near-poor.
Stealthy redistribution upward is the theme of Bush's domestic program. Under the cover of promoting growth, Bush is shifting more and more of the tax burden from the wealthy. That's the effect of his elimination of the dividends tax and the huge new tax loopholes being sold as "savings" incentives.
In the meantime, Bush is creating long-term incentives for states to cut their programs to help the poor. On Medicaid, for example, Bush is in theory giving states modest fiscal relief now -- not anything close to what they need, of course -- but only if they accept the transformation of Medicaid into a block-grant program and cuts in later years. The cuts are disguised by declaring that whatever Medicaid relief the states get now will be a "loan" to be paid back within the next decade.
"The federal government is acting like a loan shark," says Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a group that battles for expanding health insurance coverage. "The federal government is dangling a little money before the states now, and then takes it back."
In later years, the federal government would get out of the business of giving the states certain automatic protections against increased health care costs or a rise in the number of the uninsured. The result, Pollack says, will be "waiting lists, a reduction in services, and higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments."
Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that advocates programs for the needy, says states will be pressured to reduce medical coverage for the working poor -- the very people the president praises over and over again for their responsibility. But hey, somebody's got to pay for this dividends tax cut. Too bad it may have to be the children of low-income working parents.
Other long-term cuts affect the poor, too. According to Greenstein's center, the number of children receiving child-care subsidies would drop by 200,000 -- to 2.3 million -- by 2007. If housing programs were run through block grants, that also could lead to real cuts in services to the poorest Americans.
The president's program is neither conservative nor compassionate. It is radical in its stealthy way, and it threatens to undermine the federal government's rather modest commitment to helping states and cities assist their poorest residents. Yet by pushing so many of the fiscal problems so far down the road, Bush hopes to insulate himself from the political costs of his choices.
Reports out of the White House indicate that the administration hopes to use a quick victory in Iraq to push through this radical agenda.
That won't stop me from hoping for a rapid American triumph over Saddam Hussein. But if the president doesn't rethink his domestic priorities, what we'd hope would be a great moment of national unity and triumph could turn very sour, very fast.