Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2004 / 29 Tishrei, 5765
Empowerment agenda reality check
On domestic policy, the topic of last night's debate at ASU, the Bush
campaign posits that the choice is between the president's policy of
empowering individuals and Sen. Kerry's policy of expanding and empowering
Unfortunately, the Bush administration has mostly flinched from fighting
for an empowerment agenda during its first term.
Bush gave up vouchers as part of his education plan at the first whiff of
opposition. After his Social Security reform commission identified three
options for private retirement accounts, Bush let the issue lie fallow.
To move forward with Social Security reform probably requires an electoral
mandate for a fairly specific proposal. Although Bush has again expressed
support for the concept of private retirement accounts, he has offered
nothing close to a plan and continues to duck the knotty issue of paying
Social Security benefits until private accounts relieve the burden on
Bush didn't fight for transforming Medicare into a system of private
insurance, with government offering premium subsidies, as a condition of
expanding benefits to include prescription drugs.
The Bush campaign is on firmer ground in describing Kerry's general
approach as one of empowering and expanding government.
In the debate, that was clearest in the discussion of health care, not
because of what Kerry said, but because of what he decided not to say.
Kerry recited every single element of his health care plan except one: his
proposal for the federal government to largely take over paying for major
medical bills from private insurance.
The rest of Kerry's plan basically makes everyone eligible for some kind of
government insurance program.
The federal government would substantially increase health care coverage
for children up to 300 percent of the poverty level, which reaches well
into the middle class.
Everyone would be eligible to buy into a federal health insurance program,
with the federal government providing premium subsidies based upon need.
As Bush pointed out in the debate, this greatly increases the incentive for
employers to drop coverage, particularly small business. Why should
businesses continue to bear this volatile and fast-rising cost if there are
federal programs available to everyone?
To the extent there remained a private market, Kerry's catastrophic
proposal would radically change it.
Kerry proposes that the federal government pay 75 percent of all medical
expenses in excess of $50,000. Instead of private health insurance being
primarily a way to cover large expenses, it would become primarily a way of
covering small ones.
Kerry complained bitterly about Bush characterizing this as government-run
health care. But Kerry's plan would dramatically increase the number of
Americans covered by federal programs and significantly shrink the
availability of private insurance. And it's hard to believe that the
federal government is going to pay 75 percent of all major medical bills in
the country without seeking to control their delivery and cost.
On Social Security, Bush is less than forthcoming. But Kerry is downright
Kerry says that absolutely nothing needs to be done to fix Social Security
despite the declining ratio of workers to retirees. He promises no
reduction in benefits.
The cost of Social Security benefits is expected to rise from 4.3 percent
of GDP today to 6.6 percent. If nothing is done, that represents about a 10
percent increase in the burden of the federal government on the economy.
And how would Kerry pay for this sizeable expansion of government? He
didn't say during the debate, but offered a couple of misdirections.
If Bush hadn't squandered the surplus, according to Kerry, that would pay
for benefits once payroll taxes were insufficient, which is expected to be
the case by 2018.
But federal surpluses just go to reduce federal debt, which puts the money
in the pockets of former bondholders. There's nothing about a surplus today
that makes money available to the federal government to pay Social Security
benefits after 2018.
And Kerry said that Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy would have made the
Social Security Trust Fund solvent until 2075. But not if they are being
used to pay for a greatly expanded federal health care system, which is
precisely what Kerry has proposed.
So, there may be reason to question Bush's actual commitment to an
empowerment domestic agenda in his second term. But of Kerry's commitment
to empowering and expanding government, there should be no doubt.
JWR contributor Robert Robb is a columnist for The Arizona Republic. Comment by clicking here.
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