TCS Daily

A Presidential Agenda

By Kevin Hassett - August 31, 2004 12:00 AM

NEW YORK -- Most of the coverage of the recent Democratic convention concluded that the Democrats put on a royal snoozefest in Boston. The major television networks cut the coverage of the convention back sharply, with only three hours of coverage. The typical convention bounce was nowhere to be seen for Senator Kerry, who may have even lost ground. The same coverage decisions have been made again, with a "crucial" preseason football game preempting John McCain's national security speech on Monday. While diehards tuned in to watch Senator McCain on the cable networks, it may be that the programming decisions of the networks will lead to reduced viewership this week. If so, that will be a shame. If history is any guide, this week in New York will be anything but a snoozefest.

The Democratic convention made little news because the Democrats themselves made little news. There was almost no policy substance whatsoever announced. For fiscal policy, the Democrats gave us plenty of platitudes and rehashed old proposals, but nothing meaningful was said. Indeed, their promises are so incoherent that I have no idea what policies they might pursue should Senator Kerry be elected. On national security, the picture is even less clear.

But this week will be different for one big reason. President Bush is going to lay out his second-term agenda for the first time this week. Love it or hate it, there will be wall-to-wall news. This highlights a little appreciated advantage that President Bush has in this election. Senator Kerry put many of his policy cards on the table during the contentious Democratic primary. President Bush can begin to release his plans now, continue to do so between now and the election, and control the news cycle.

This week will also leverage one of President Bush's main policy advantages. Politicians have a long track record of making promises that they drop just after the election. President Bush, on the other hand, placed a few markers in the sand during the last election, and pursued those promises with a single-minded passion. His tax plan was passed with little alteration in his first year. He moved heaven and earth to pass his "no child left behind" education policy. He promised seniors prescription drugs in Medicare, and he pushed conservative opponents of the new entitlement until they caved.

It might be bad politics, but the President clearly has a cowboy's attachment to doing what he says he is going to do. So far in this election, his second term agenda has only been sketched with the broadest of brushes. This week, we will find out which priorities would become the heirs of tax cuts, education and prescription drugs should the President be reelected.

What economic policies are going to make the cut? The President's team has done a good job keeping a tight lid on the final details, but there are a number of worthy candidates that have a reasonable high probability of appearing this week given the broad outlines relied upon so far. These include:

Social Security. The President has spoken at length about the benefits of an ownership society. This clearly foreshadows a desire to move Social Security towards private accounts. Senator Moynihan and the other Social Security commission members provided a nice outline of possible reforms several years back. Their proposals have been analyzed and reanalyzed, and one of them may well be the centerpiece of legislation early next year.

Tax Reform. The current tax code is a mess, and it is a mess that is getting worse. The biggest problem is the Alternative Minimum Tax, a second, free-standing code that is catching more and more Americans. The problem is so big that one recent estimate suggested that repealing the AMT may cost more than the repeal of the "normal" code. For tax reformers, the AMT crisis is an opportunity. One logical solution might be to create a new code that keeps the best parts of the current code and the AMT code.

Trade. A significant amount of progress has been made with the current strategy of pursuing country-by-country trade deals. Senator Kerry appears to have backed off of his "Benedict Arnold" line, but has staked out enough protectionist territory that the President may wish to highlight distinctions between his positions and the Senator's. More aggressive free trade areas and/or changes to the international tax code might play well.

When he ran in 2000, President Bush released highly detailed plans, complete with painstaking scores. Those "small ball" campaign documents were designed to demonstrate that he was ready for prime time. At this convention, voters already know that he can deliver successful legislation. Accordingly, he has the luxury of stating his goals and filling in the details in the future. If he does that, he will provide a great deal more news this week than the Democrats did in Boston, and nobody will be snoozing.


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