2004 is a time for choosing

George Will

1/1/2004 12:00:00 AM - George Will

It is the year before the year in which Democrats probably will have one of their agonizing reappraisals. And it is the year before the year in which Republicans, having come to terms with the fact that the welfare state is here to stay, will prove that they are, or are not, serious about governing it.

When you turned the page on the calendar Wednesday night, the first page of 2004 should have had printed -- in large letters, in red ink -- this insomnia-producing warning: ``DEMOGRAPHY IS DESTINY AND IT IS NOW JUST FOUR YEARS BEFORE THE DEMOGRAPHIC DELUGE -- THE BEGINNING OF THE RETIREMENT OF 77 MILLION BABY BOOMERS.''

Fortunately, Democrats seem determined to nominate an angry apostle of reactionary liberalism, ready to die on the barricades in defense of the unsustainable Medicare and Social Security status quos. If Democrats do that, the electoral aftermath could be a creative moment for welfare state reform.

Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 created in Congress something that had not existed since 1938 -- a liberal legislative majority. It lasted only two years, but it did much. Howard Dean could be the catalyst of a conservative legislative majority which, although probably evanescent, might be emboldened to begin coming to grips with this:

The baby boom generation is twice as large as the generation it follows and 50 percent larger than the one that is following it. By 2030 the nation's population will be older than Florida's is today. Unless there are politically difficult changes, such as raising the retirement age, there will be twice as many retirees as there are today. And there will be perhaps only 18 percent more workers to pay for the retirees -- unless there is a much higher rate of immigration, which would involve its own political difficulties.

To begin dealing with all this, President Bush needs two things. One is the emancipation from re-election concerns that comes with a second term and the 22nd Amendment foreclosing a third. The other is an enlarged legislative majority to work with before he begins to be, after 2006, a seriously lame duck.

Every president seeking a second term wants to have at his back the wind from three things -- a strong foreign policy, a strong economy and a weak opponent. The new year dawns with Democrats apparently determined to complete the wish-list trifecta of the president they dislike more than any president since Richard Nixon. In 1972 they did Nixon the favor of nominating the opponent he would have chosen, George McGovern.

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.