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Jewish World Review Dec. 8, 2003 / 13 Kislev, 5764

Michael Barone

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Consumer Reports

Choice and accountability |
Many conservatives are complaining that George W. Bush is a big-government conservative--or not a conservative at all. They complain about the Medicare prescription drug law he and the House and Senate Republican leadership pushed through, the first major expansion of Medicare since 1965. They call him a big spender, noting that discretionary spending has been rising more rapidly than under Bill Clinton. They complain that he pushed through the first education bill giving the federal government a role in setting standards. They complain about the farm bill he signed in 2002 and the energy bill he championed this year.

All those complaints have some substance. But for the most part Bush did not really campaign as a small-government conservative. A different theme runs through the major policies he advocated in the campaign and the major policy changes he has pushed through as president, a theme that can be summed up in two words: choice and accountability. The Bush tax cuts let you have the choice of how to spend more of your money, and you are, as always, accountable for the results. The education law forces the states to hold students and teachers accountable and gives them some choice in deciding how to do so. The Medicare prescription drug bill contains health savings accounts and competition experiments in 2010, which are attempts at providing more choice and more accountability.

Cold decisions. To be sure, Bush has made compromises. Congress was unwilling to vote for all of the tax cuts he proposed; he and the Republican leadership made cold decisions and got what they could. (House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas like to say that if you pass a bill by more than one vote, you have given away too much.) Bush gave up early on school vouchers, and it's unclear how strong the state standards will be. The Medicare prescription drug bill contains much less provision for competition than Bush wanted; DeLay at one point excluded Thomas from the conference committee to whittle the provision down. It's not clear that the bill will lead to the choice-and-accountability healthcare system that conservatives like Thomas and former Speaker Newt Gingrich want.

Bush has redefined conservatism. It is now not the process of cutting government and devolving powers; it is the process of installing choice and accountability into government even at the cost of allowing it to grow. This is an attempt to move government in the same direction as the private sector, which now offers much more in the way of choice and accountability than it did in the 1950s and 1960s, when big corporations and big unions established wage rates, when you worked for one company until age 65 and then depended on that one company and Social Security for your retirement income.

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What is next on Bush's list? Social Security. In the past quarter century the private sector has moved from defined-benefit pensions to defined-contribution pensions. Defined-benefit pensions gave you little choice and no accountability: If the LTV Steel pension fund or the United Mine Workers hospital fund went belly up, you were out of luck (or lobbying Congress for a federal bailout). With defined-contribution pensions, you make the choice of how to invest the money in your 401(k), and you are accountable for the results.

Bush campaigned for Social Security individual investment accounts in 2000 but, with many congressional Republicans queasy, has not mentioned them much since. I think he is going to return to the issue next month and make Social Security a major issue in the campaign. Most proposals have talked of letting you invest 2 percent of your 12.4 percent Social Security tax in the market. But the nonpartisan chief actuary of the Social Security Administration has just costed out a proposal to let you invest 6.4 percent and concluded that it would leave the system sound "through 2077 and beyond." Bush's Social Security appointees have been keeping in close touch with the leaders of the AARP, whose support was critical in passing the Medicare bill. Individual investment accounts would move America toward more choice and accountability, away from dependence on big institutions and toward more independence and self-reliance. That is Bush's brand of conservatism, and it is in line with changes in the character of the country.

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Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2004, Michael Barone