WASHINGTON -- When President Bush addressed the nation Tuesday night, he had two related problems -- one political, the other conceptual. His political problem is that he has negligible support among Democrats and his support among independents has fallen sharply, so he must continue to govern with narrow victories secured by the cohesion of his conservative base. His conceptual problem is that although election results indicate that this is a somewhat conservative era, it is more rhetorically than operationally conservative.
There is a broad consensus that government has a duty to assuage two perennial fears and a modern anxiety. The two fears are illness and old age -- particularly illness in old age. The modern anxiety is that educational deficits will leave rising generations of Americans ill-equipped to compete in a world in which few social structures can temper the winds of competition.
Furthermore, Americans are uninterested in the question of which level of government in our federal system addresses those fears and that anxiety. Five decades ago, the new interstate highway system was officially named the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. And when, also in the 1950s, the Soviet Union's Sputnik produced American anxiety about educational standards, the federal government produced the National Defense Education Act. Note the recurring word: ``defense.'' That was partly a verbal tic of the time -- a Cold War reflex to impart momentum to any proposal by presenting it as integral to national security. But it also represented a vestigial impulse to connect any federal action with a clear -- meaning constitutionally enumerated -- federal power.
That impulse is gone in a nation in which it seems quaint to suggest that some things are beyond the federal government's proper purview. Today's default position is: Washington should do it.
So the president must fashion policies that are responsive to this national consensus but will not cause fissures in his conservative base. Hence health savings accounts. The president proposes to allow people to buy, with pre-tax dollars, high-deductible health insurance policies outside of work. They can then pay for out-of-pocket expenses with tax-free dollars in their accounts.
HSAs are a distilled essence of the conservative agenda of giving individuals incentives to augment their own security, thereby reducing the demand for, and hence the supply of, government. HSAs offend Democrats who understand the potential threat HSAs pose to the ``progressive'' agenda of maximizing equality, understood as shared dependence on a government-defined ethic of common provision.