TCS Daily

When President Bush Speaks

By Arnold Kling - August 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Kerry's "doctrine of necessity," if seriously intended, would entail a pacifism and an isolationism more thorough than any attempted by a U.S. government since the 1930s.
--Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan's analysis echoes mine. I was disappointed in John Kerry's speech accepting the nomination for President, but I have to take my share of the responsibility. After all, I never advised Kerry on what I wanted him to say. I do not want to make the same mistake with President Bush. Here, I will let him know exactly what I wish he would say, and then he has no one to blame but himself if he fails to heed my suggestions.

Setting the Tone

I would like to see a quiet speech, with no applause-generating one-liners. If the audience sits on its hands until the end of the speech, that would be perfect as far as I am concerned.

I know that the standard role of a convention speech is the opposite. The candidate is supposed to deliver a partisan stemwinder, in order to "rouse the faithful." But I am weary of the partisan faithful, on both sides. I welcome clear stands and strong commitments, but divisive harangues and rhetorical put-downs leave me sad, and even frightened.

Perhaps television has trained the American public to think of politics as two opposing pundits hurling cheap shots at one another. In that case, Kerry took the right approach and I am simply naive. But I would like to see an acceptance speech that is delivered in a relaxed, conversational tone, rather than pugnacious rabble-rousing.

On Iraq

Regarding the controversial issues concerning Iraq, I would recommend that President Bush say:

'I did not go to war based on faulty intelligence estimates. We went to war based on facts:

'Saddam Hussein had not ceased his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.

'He continued to play cat-and-mouse games with weapons inspectors.

'He was given clear instructions by the Security Council to account for his weapons programs and allow unfettered inspections, and he failed to comply.

'What we have found so far indicates that the consensus intelligence estimates of the status of his weapons programs were overly pessimistic. However, I believe that had we backed down rather than gone to war, he would have taken that as a green light to move ahead, and our worst fears would have come true. I have no regrets about moving in when we did.

'I do regret one particular moment, which is when I appeared in front of a banner that said, 'Mission Accomplished.' Although in my speech I warned of the tough challenges that lay ahead, that banner sent the opposite message. It made it sound as though deposing Saddam was the easy part. In fact, we always knew that the most difficult part of the mission would be establishing democracy in a country that had known only ruthless tyranny for the previous 25 years.'

Justifying Sacrifice in Iraq

It will be tempting for President Bush to try to defend the situation in Iraq by pointing to positive achievements and telling heartwarming stories. However, I think it would be unwise to try to focus people's attention on "good news vs. bad news" or "joyful ordinary Iraqis vs. what you see in the media." Instead, I would try to focus on the larger strategy.

The Administration's strategy for victory in the war on terrorism (which differs from my strategy), is to work for democracy and modernization in the Arab world. The idea is that if young Arab men have the opportunity to participate in an open political process, then they will be less attracted to the outlet of terrorism.

From that perspective, success in Iraq is critical. Five years from now, if Iraq is a functioning democracy, then other leaders in the region will see that for their countries democracy also is possible, and even inevitable. On the other hand, if Iraq descends into chaos or emerges as just another autocratic state, then other states will not reform, and throughout the region the reservoirs of would-be terrorists will remain full. With this much at stake in Iraq, the price is worth paying and the sacrifices that Americans are making are justified.

Domestic Issues

On the economy, President Bush could point out that the prosperity of the 1990's was based in part on a bullish stock market, especially the Nasdaq, which began to crash nine months before President Bush took office and had fallen by over 50 percent before the Administration's economic policies were in place. The resulting recession was mild by some indicators, but it was severe by the measure that counts the most -- jobs. However, it has turned around, and the recession would have lasted longer and been worse without the tax cuts that were enacted.

Going forward, the most important issues are Social Security and the government's role in health care. The Administration should focus on pursuing modernization and reform in those two areas.

On Social Security, the President should say that the system works for today's seniors, but it does not work for younger people. As important as it is to keep our promises to those who are in retirement or close to it, it is just as important that we not leave Social Security as it is for people in their 20's, 30's, and 40's.

The American people need to know that the money that workers put into Social Security now does not belong to them, but instead goes into the general Treasury, where Congress spends it as it pleases. You might think that the money you put into Social Security goes into an account where it belongs to you and nobody else can touch it. However, it does not work that way. It can work that way. It should work that way. It will work that way once reforms are enacted. Privatization is the ultimate lockbox.

Social Security also needs to be more flexible. Our existing system was designed when reaching the age of 65 meant that your active life was probably over, and you were likely to die within a decade. Going forward, we need a system that can accommodate everything from early retirement to seniors taking on second careers and new challenges in their 80's. Personal accounts are the key to giving people more options as they age.

On health care, reforms should adhere to some basic principles. These principles will promote personal choice and continued innovation.

The first principle is to give as much decision-making authority as possible to patients and doctors. Today, treatment choices can be distorted by Medicare regulations, fear of lawsuits, and other mechanisms. Reform should aim to minimize such sources of distortion.

The second principle is that taxes should be used to pay for health care only for those who truly need assistance. To the extent that the government pays health care expenses for everyone, your medical bills will go down but your tax bills will go up by much more. We need only limited paternalism.

Shameless Demagoguery

Although it would not contradict any of his major policy positions, I cannot say that I expect President Bush to deliver the sort of speech I have outlined. My guess is that instead he will answer Senator Kerry's shameless demagoguery with shameless demagoguery of his own. Probably that would serve to raise his standings in the polls. Just not with me.


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