If this year the Democratic Party marginalizes itself, it will give Bush a chance to broaden his presidency. Before 9/11, he had a minimalist presidency, symbolized by what he was doing when the planes struck the World Trade Center -- reading to some Florida grade school pupils. He had pleased his core supporters and fulfilled a campaign promise by cutting taxes. He had launched his initiative to involve ``faith-based'' institutions in the delivery of social services. He had formulated a sophisticated policy on stem cell research. But as late as 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, it was unclear what would be the important additional substance, if any, of his presidency. At 8:46 a.m. there was clarity.
By then Bush had already begun taking Democratic issues off the 2004 table with the No Child Left Behind Act, which blurred traditional Democratic possession of the education issue. That bill became law just seven years after Republicans rode to a smashing victory in the 1994 elections promising, among many other things, to abolish the Department of Education.
In 1996 Democrat Bill Clinton became the first president to sign a law repealing a major entitlement (Aid to Families with Dependent Children, repealed as part of welfare reform). And in 2003 his Republican successor signed a law creating a major entitlement (to prescription drug benefits). Regarding the post-New Deal role of the federal government, the differences between the parties have narrowed. There shall be an enormous federal role in assuaging the two great fears of life, illness and old age. The arguments are about modalities.
But they are important arguments. They concern the feasible and proper role of individual choice in medical and retirement entitlements. And the use of private retirement accounts to give Americans of modest means access to serious accumulation over a lifetime. This could be the year before the year when Congress comes to grips with those arguments.