As the Republican National Convention approaches, pressure is building on President Bush to lay out a second term agenda. With John Kerry running no worse than even in most polls, many Republicans believe that Bush needs a big idea of some kind to galvanize his supporters. I think they are probably going to be disappointed.
The fact is that very few presidents ever have a meaningful second term agenda. First of all, they don?t need one to get re-elected because they cannot run for a third term. Second, they don?t have the time or the political clout to get anything big through Congress because they are lame ducks.
The sole exception to this rule that I can think of is the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which Ronald Reagan pushed through in his second term. But as they say, it?s an exception that proves the rule.
Reagan had a clear tax philosophy -- he wanted tax rates to be as low as possible. After cutting rates in 1981, however, the emergence of budget deficits made further tax cuts impossible and, in fact, led to tax increases. But Reagan was always adamant that tax rates not be increased in any of the many tax increases he signed into law. Had the first President Bush understood this point, he likely would have been re-elected in 1992.
Consequently, the effort to continue rate reduction necessarily shifted toward tax reform, which in essence involve raising taxes to pay for further rate reductions. As early as 1982, there was considerable discussion of this idea in Congress, with two key alternatives emerging -- the Kemp-Kasten bill, authored by Rep. Jack Kemp, R-N.Y., and Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wisc., and the Bradley-Gephardt bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Although considerably different in their details, both bills had the same goal -- to close tax loopholes and use the revenue to reduce rates.
By January 1984, when Reagan announced a Treasury Department study of tax reform, the debate was already well advanced. The following year, the White House sent a proposal to Capitol Hill embodying recommendations from the Treasury study, as well as elements of the congressional bills. In essence, it represented a consensus view of tax reform, which is why it was able to get through Congress in 1986.
The point is that tax reform wasn?t something that Reagan suddenly announced at the 1984 convention as the key element of his second term agenda. It was already well in the works, and detailed plans had been under consideration in Congress for some time. All Reagan had to do was push the ball over the goal line for the final score.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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