Typically we criticize our politicians as shortsighted, looking only to the next election, unwilling to take any short-term risk for the long-term national interests. But today's politicians -- notably George W. Bush, but also some of his Democratic opponents -- are fighting for long-term stakes. Sure, they make compromises and back and fill. But they are also acting with an eye to what America will look like 20, 30, even 40 years out.
That's true of the continuing fight over the Bush tax cuts. Some of the surface arguments are disingenuous. Bush talks of disciplining government, but in his first term he failed to cut spending nearly as much as taxes. He let House and Senate Republican leaders use spending as the glue to hold their slim majorities together.
Democrats have had a good time attacking Republican deficits, although precious few of them were motivated to go into politics by a hatred of deficit spending and many at the same time called for increased spending on their favorite programs. But both sides are thinking about the long-term future.
Bush believes that cutting taxes and making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent will in the long run hold down government's share of the gross domestic product. Many Democrats act out of fear that Bush is right. They would like to see America move some distance toward a Western European-style welfare state. They know that permanent tax cuts would tend to prevent even a President Hillary Rodham Clinton from doing this. It's a serious difference over a serious issue.
Similarly, on Social Security, Bush wants to allow younger workers to put their money into individual investment accounts so that every worker can do what most already do: accumulate significant wealth over their lifetimes. That will tend to make them less dependent on government. It will also keep government's share of the nation's gross domestic product from rising as we move from the America of 1935, when there were more than 40 workers for each retiree, to the America of 2042, when there will be two -- and when the Social Security trust fund will run dry, according to many projections.
Democrats want to preserve Social Security as it is, as a safety net for the elderly, and they fear the change in attitude that may come as all workers become investors. They say that taxes can always be raised a point or two because they think it's a good thing for government to take a larger share of national income and redistribute it progressively.