Jewish World Review Oct. 14, 2004 / 29 Tishrei, 5765

Robert Robb

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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 government.

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 taxpayers.

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?

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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 irresponsible.

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.


10/13/04: And what tax rate should Americans making over $200,000 a year pay? Some pre-debate advice for the President
09/24/04: Too many of the wrong people have too much ability to influence public opinion too quickly?
09/20/04: Kerry asks good question about security costs
09/07/04: Right city, right message
08/30/04: Bush's key task: His reinvention as a true uniter
08/20/04: Bush's burdening the Middle Class
08/13/04: For prez to win, he must change his campaigning style
08/03/04: Missing in Beantown was a sense of the art of the possible
07/26/04: Kerry inflated agenda reveals he's failed to truly make the transition from legislator to presidential candidate
07/12/04: Edwards punctuates Kerry fantasies
07/06/04: Kerry ups the ante in bid for Latino vote
06/30/04: High Court gave administration limits
06/25/04: Parallel (political) universes
06/21/04: Al-Qaida-Iraq interaction strengthens case for war
06/02/04: Gas whiners don't believe in or trust markets
05/10/04: Border reforms fail on black-market issue
05/07/04: It wasn't Bush's recession nor Bush's recovery
04/28/04: Arizona to become test market on immigration as a political issue
04/23/04: Accusations that the Bush administration has been shredding civil liberties are hyperbolic
04/16/04: Learning the limits
04/14/04: Aug. 6 memo is not even a water pistol, much less a smoking gun
04/11/04: Once 9/11 Commission's political theater ends, we must debate real security issues
04/09/04: Fact checking Kerry's federal budget plans
04/08/04: Should the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq be delayed beyond the current deadline?
04/02/04: Kerry's tax epiphany makes some cents
03/31/04: What could have prevented 9/11
03/26/04: Knock off the high-stakes blame game
03/23/04: McCain a ‘straight talker’? Who is he kidding?
03/17/04: Bin Laden makes distinctions?
03/12/04: In the dangerous neighborhoods, cause for hope, if not yet optimism
03/01/04: Greenspan view scary, but Dems in denial

02/27/04: How not to achieve a mandate

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