I was musing today on what President Bush would have to do in order to assure that he has a legacy to be proud of after his second term is up. Despite his detractors his first term was certainly not a disaster, but it also wasn’t a huge success. With three years to go, he still has the opportunity to use his time wisely and leave behind a legacy which he can be proud of, even if it doesn’t please all of his critics.
Given Bush’s past performance and apparent personality it seems to me that the model of James K. Polk is one for him to consider. Polk went into office with four specific goals, achieved all four of them and chose not to even run for reelection. All four were somewhat controversial, but absolutely necessary for the country, and by focusing just on those issues and spending all of his efforts and political capital on them alone he was able to achieve 100% success. Polk’s goals, BTW were to end the federal role in domestic improvement programs, restore the treasury without creating a national bank, substantially lower the tariff and resolve the nation’s border issues by acquiring Oregon, Texas and California.
Four goals in four years seems like a reasonable target for a president, even today, and if James K. Polk who was a political genius could only achieve four it might be unrealistic for the intelligent, but less remarkable Bush to do any better. Even completing three important goals would probably be a pretty impressive victory. Bush’s goals should be as clear and as simple as Polk’s and need not necessarily be as ambitious as Polk’s massive land grab from Mexico. Bush has already identified important issues he wants to take action on, so what he needs to do now is focus on them and follow through to completion come hell or high water. He needs to drop the petty issues, and focus on the four most important issues which he has already expressed commitment to and make sure those goals are achieved, not by half measures, but as completely as possible.
What I would recommend is that he pick 3 to 4 goals from the following list of the five most important issues currently facing the nation and make them happen.
Goal 1: Health Coverage for All Americans – This is the easiest of the four issues, because our system basically works. What we have right now is a hybrid system with managed healthcare for those who pay for it, and publicly underwritten healthcare for those who can’t afford to pay for it. The problem in the system is those who aren’t poor enough for Medicaid and either choose not to or are unable to pay for their own insurance. The answer for them is a system halfway between Medicaid and private insurance – government mandated and underwritten gap insurance. Short term coverage provided to anyone who seeks medical care and does not already have coverage or qualify for Medicaid, which the recipient pays for at a discounted rate because it is partially underwritten by the government. Coverage would be limited, and some costs would be recovered from the client, so the costs would not be high. This approach avoids the pitfalls of socialization, preserves the quality of the private system and makes sure everyone is covered.
Goal 2: Social Security Reform – Bush needs to push this issue much harder than he is. It would be better for him to pursue a full and fundamental reform of the system even if he loses completely than to settle for half-measures or compromise with the Democrats at all. Social Security reform is going to come eventually, and by putting forward a really good plan, Bush can get credit for his work whenever Congress grows the spine or feels the desperation to make the right changes. A reformed system should cut off the services of the current system for anyone under the age of 30, and offer those between the ages of 30 and 50 the option of voluntarily leaving the current system. Future social security contributions for those leaving the old system should be split, with half going into the trust fund to pay off the obligations of the old system and the rest going into strictly controlled private investment accounts based around broad market mutual funds. As the deficit in the old system gets paid off the amount of the total social security tax paid by individuals into the system would be reduced and that money would be switched over to the private accounts. Ultimately the target would be for the old system to be shut down around 2050, at which point the private account system would be the only system and the mandatory contribution level would be lowered to 10%.
Goal 3: Tax Reform – Bush has only hesitantly metioned how far he’d really like to go on this issue, but he should step forward and make a full commitment now. The income tax needs to be abolished and the IRS needs to be shut down. That system should be replaced either with a flat, uniform percentage tax on all incomes over the poverty level (adjusted for number of family members) with no deductions, or a ‘fair tax’ type system of federal sales tax. The system proposed by the actual ‘fair tax’ advocates is not a viable option as the tax rate is too high and their system of rebating hypothetical expenses for necessities is completely impractical. In both cases the tax rate should be set around 20% and the reform should be accompanied by a Constitutional Amendment strictly limiting federal government spending to projected tax revenue plus no more than 10%. Of course, I’d love to see Bush repeal the 16th Amendment and return taxing authority to the states, but I think that’s unrealistic, so failing that either of these plans will do. Realistically Bush ought to go for the flat income tax, as that can be sold as just a reform rather than a scrapping and complete redo of the system.
Goal 4: Immigration Reform – Bush’s general idea of a guest worker program could be an excellent solution to our immigration problems if it was implemented well. It would allow continued opportunity for Mexican workers and make cheap labor available to US employers, but make it practical to keep track of them while making it easier to control the borders and make sure that it wasn’t costing US Citizens jobs they were willing to do. The benefits of such a program for the workers, for the nation and in controlling terrorist entry to the country are incalculable. Plus this might be a program Bush could get some bipartisan support on.
Goal 5: Win the War on Terror – This one is a no-brainer. I don’t necessarily support unilateral military action on principle, but once you commit to it you have to follow through to the bitter end. Bush really has to continue taking the war to the enemy and not worry too much about the domestic side of the war or the potential fallout. By choosing this strategy he’s made the War on Terror an all or nothing proposition. Given that choice, the best defense in this case is a good offense. Just as Iraq was a good place to fight because of its location and potential for success, Bush ought to look for one or two other soft targets to move on to once the situation in Iraq resolves itself. He needs to steel himself to selling the American people on the idea of ongoing warfare in multiple locations with the objective of keeping the terrorists occupied and spreading order and democracy in troubled parts of the world. His next target should probably be Sudan, because it’s a breeding ground for Islamic discontent, relatively easy to take on, and will win him some good credit internationally. He ought to move troops there as soon as a significant number can be taken out of Iraq. Operations in Sudan shouldn’t take more than a few months, but the situation there will require long-term occupation which we’lll have to do even if the UN doesn’t get off its ass and help. After Sudan Bush should look closely at Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. If they don’t start implementing democratic reforms in the next two years he should use military pressure to bring them to their senses. Since Bush started with this idea of foreign intervention and making the war on terror military in nature, he has to follow that strategy through to the end. Weakening or abandonning it would be disastrous for the nation, for the world and for his legacy. The world can forgive someone who tried and failed, but they can never forgive a coward.
Of course, if Bush does achieve three or four of these goals, the Democrats will be in serious trouble, as they will have nothing important left to do except screw things up if they ever get power again. And of course, we can expect them to resist these sorts of badly needed reforms with tooth and nail, because they care more about their personal power base than they do about fixing the nation’s problems.
The goals are also of different levels of importance. Bush can’t pass on #5. He’s already committed to it and not following it through would be disastrous. As for the others, he can pretty much pick and choose. Social Security reform is already running into problems, so vitally important though it is he might have to back-burner it. Tax reform scares people, so it will be a challenge. The easy route is to do Immigration and Medicaid reform which are feelgood measures which some Democrats will support, and then use the political capital that builds to tackle one of the tougher issues.
Bush will have to be very careful not to get distracted by partisan issues of lesser importance or to pay too much attention to criticism or polls. He seems to have an instinct for what is right and he needs to follow that instinct first. Everyone in Congress is going to come yammering at him with their pet issue, and he needs to stand firm and tell them to back off, or else make deals which will get the important bills passed before he’ll consider their lesser issues.
Bush needs to remember that he can’t be voted out of office, so he can afford to take some risks and step on some toes that badly need it. Each of these goals is enormously important for the nation, and if he can achieve even a couple of them he will have done more good for the country than any president in the last 40 years. In fact, even attempting them seriously and failing will leave him with a better legacy than most of his predecessors. In this he should take a note from the firm hand of Teddy Roosevelt who said:
- “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
Even if this mission is hopeless and he fails, he’ll still win a legacy of respect if he at least goes down trying to do the right thing. It’s do or die time now for Bush. He can either take these vitally important issues which he has already identified and pursue them with everything he’s got, or he can accept a legacy of mediocrity at best. So far his ideas have outstripped his performance. In the next three years it’s time for his performance to make those ideals a reality.