"Are you trying to help or hinder the re-election of President Bush?" a reader asked me in an e-mail message a couple of months ago. "While your points are valid, unless you want Kerry elected, refrain from aiding Kerry's campaign! . . . Save all the criticism of [Bush] for Nov. 3!"
This message reflects the gist of the complaints that I received from Republicans whenever I criticized the president for betraying conservative principles. They usually did not say I was wrong; instead, they said that, bad as Bush's performance had been from a limited-government perspective, Kerry would be worse, so I should keep my mouth shut until after the election.
The strategy of refraining from criticism of Bush when it was most likely to be effective -- during an election campaign in which his victory depended upon his ability to motivate his conservative base -- never made much sense to me. I suppose the hope was that, once he was re-elected, the president could afford to take the politically unpopular steps that will be necessary to put the nation's fiscal house in order.
Now that Bush has won a second term by a comfortable margin and his party has strengthened its control of both the House and the Senate, the conservatives who have been holding their tongues presumably will press him to deliver on his promises. Here are three important ones:
Spending restraint. Bush repeatedly has vowed to cut the budget deficit, about $422 billion in 2004, in half by 2009. A recent analysis by the Congressional Budget Office indicates he won't come close. Yet it would be nice to see the president get some use out of his veto power, which is still in its original packaging.
The challenge of cutting the deficit over the short term pales in comparison to the fiscal crises facing Social Security and Medicare as the baby boomers retire. The long-term shortfalls of these two programs total $74 trillion -- more than six times the U.S. GDP -- with Medicare accounting for more than four-fifths of that.
Bush only made the problem worse by tacking on a Medicare drug benefit that will cost more than half a trillion dollars in its first decade and something like $2 trillion in its second. On the brighter side, the same legislation included health savings accounts, which point toward the only feasible way to bridge the enormous gap between Medicare's commitments and its resources: greater individual responsibility.