Already even Republicans in Congress are squealing about President Bush’s just-proposed budget as being “too austere” and, of course, too many of them are bellyaching about his initiative to privatize part of Social Security.
The president does not have Democrats on his side, needless to say, so he’s got to get his Republicans lined up. What’s going on?
On the first count, spending, Republicans are greedy, too. As a party, Republicans in Congress are little better than Democrats _ and sometimes worse _ when it comes to spending and new government programs. In proposing a $2.5 trillion budget, including what are really very minimal cuts, the president has hardly put Congress on much of a diet. In fact it’s not even a diet. It’s more like asking Congress to trim a few pounds of the many gained during the holidays. In the past four years, after all, federal spending has gone up by a whopping, and in recent decades unprecedented, 33 percent. Most of it at the urging of the president and happily agreed to by a spendaholic Congress.
On the second count, Social Security reform, Republicans are just downright scared.
This is no way to act for a governing party that controls both houses of Congress and the White House.
Instead of being frightened, Republicans need to strap on their seat belts, pull down their goggles, put their feet on the accelerator and show they have a place to go and a reason to get there. Otherwise, why in the world put them in charge of two branches of government to begin with?
Here’s how the president can get his way:
Bush has finally seen he has to stop spending tax dollars like a drunken sailor. In the budget he’s just proposed, he still wants to spend money like a tipsy sailor _ but it’s going in the right direction. Most important, because of its proposed solidifying of many of his earlier tax cuts, it’s a pro-growth budget. (When tax rates go down, the economy grows and more tax revenue gets to Washington.) The more the economy grows, the more the relative size of government shrinks. A very good thing. The president has been consistently “pro-growth” in tax reform. Now he needs to convince Congress he’s become “pro-growth” (sort of) when it comes to holding down spending, too, by making it clear he’ll veto any budget that comes to him that spends more overall than he proposes.
Here’s the problem: The president has never used his veto pen. The first time that’s been true of a full-term president in 175 years. He’s rarely threatened to use it. I don’t even think he knows where it is. He’d better start looking for it, and make it clear that the naysayers in Congress will meet with that veto pen if they don’t take him seriously on the budget. The president does have Republican allies in Congress. They’ll be in a better position to help him if he wields a credible threat of a veto.
When it comes to the issue of Social Security reform and allowing taxpayers to voluntarily invest part of their payroll taxes in private accounts, already many Republicans are talking “compromise” and adding some sort of private accounts, not doing anything to change the system itself. That’s because the Social Security system isn’t scheduled to go bust until 2018 _ so why would Congress want to deal with it now?
In committing himself to the reform of Social Security, the president is being incredibly gutsy. He can’t look back. That means going over the heads of Congress to talk straight to the American people and especially young workers. His White House is already doing this, recognizing that even us 40 year-old geezers and many of our seniors are used to investing our own money, are technologically savvy _ and ready for the idea of private accounts no matter what the fear-mongers at the AARP say. But this campaign is going to get ugly, Republicans are going to continue to tell the president he’s hurting their re-election chances and the president may at times want to back down.
He has to forget about Congress, and sell it straight to middle America. Let it pressure Congress from the right direction.
In his second term, typically a time when presidents sit back and rest on either their laurels or their scandals, this president has laid out a bold agenda. Now he has to fight for it, even against members of his own party in Congress. Can he do it? Well, this is a president who stood firm on elections in Iraq when naysayers (like me) said it would never work. Once again, he was “misunderestimated,” as he might say.
Now he needs to display the same guts fighting Republican opposition at home as he has standing up to the opponents of democracy in Iraq. There’s too much at stake here to do anything else.
(Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at letterstohart(at)comcast.net.)