As the Democratic presidential candidates begin to roll out their "big ideas" for the 2004 campaign, it is not too early for the Republicans and the White House to begin thinking about what initiatives they will seek a mandate for in a second term. For the sake of the American people, I hope President Bush seeks a mandate on two issues the Democrats won't touch: Social Security and tax reform. A Mandate for Economic Prosperity and Retirement Security would put Republicans in the position of being the reform party of 2004.
On tax reform, the president is off to an auspicious beginning, and it wouldn't take much to consolidate into a comprehensive package the principles on which last year's tax bill and this year's soon-to-be enacted tax bill were based: simplification and fewer tax rates, neutral treatment of all sources of income, elimination of double taxation, transparency and stability. On Social Security, I hope the president offers the American people a comprehensive reform proposal based on personal retirement accounts to help create a shareholder democracy.
The debate on Social Security, as well as some Republicans' hesitancy to embrace comprehensive tax reform, exposes a profound difference of opinion within the conservative movement over the question of government borrowing. One wing of the conservative movement continues to worship at the altar of fiscal austerity, placing debt and deficits uber alles. We see its pernicious effects currently obstructing congressional efforts to enact a modest package of growth-enhancing tax reforms. The austerity wing's limited vision of Social Security "reform" consists of allowing workers to place a meager 2 percentage points of their payroll taxes into personal retirement accounts, and it insists on paying for the transition costs of switching from a complete pay-as-you-go retirement system to a partial pay-go system by cutting Social Security benefits.
Read my lips: Cutting Social Security benefits is not a strategy for re-election; it is political suicide. If the austerity wing of the president's party talks him into proposing anything on Social Security that fails to give a guarantee to every worker in America that he or she will not receive any less in retirement income than they are guaranteed under Social Security today, the Democrats won't need an agenda to win. All they will need is a warm body on the ballot.