Why Democrats fear Bush's domestic agenda

Posted: Oct 07, 2004 12:00 AM
If Sept. 11 had never happened -- if debate about domestic policy had not been drowned out by the roar of war -- the potential domestic ramifications of this election would give it unusual nation-shaping power. To understand why is to understand some of the Democratic rage about the specter of a second term for George W. Bush.

He has a multifaceted agenda for weakening crucial components of the Democratic Party, factions that depend on cosseting by the federal government. Consider trial lawyers and organized labor.

John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as running mate was a blunder, and not just because Kerry probably will lose Edwards's North Carolina. The Edwards selection ratifies a provocative fact: trial lawyers have become the Democrats' most important faction. This has energized small-business owners, the self-employed, doctors and others who worry that they live one lawsuit away from ruin. Such people, now aroused, may propel tort reform that will curtail the windfalls that make trial lawyers the Democrats' largest source of contributions.

Another Democratic faction, organized labor, profits from coercive laws that make mandatory some of the $8 billion it collects in members' dues. Substantial sums flow into Democratic coffers. Furthermore, organized labor is, increasingly, government organized as an interest group -- public employees unions. The growth of organized labor is in those unions, whose members tend to vote Democratic, for government growth.

Bush is pressing to put hundreds of thousands of federal jobs up for competition with the private sector. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform says: "The people who cut the Pentagon lawn are government employees. Why?" People listed in the phone book will do it cheaper. How many of the 15 million state and local government jobs could be privatized, with how many billions of dollars in savings?

The public education lobby -- one in 10 delegates to the Democratic convention was a member of a teachers union -- wants government to keep impediments in the way of competition. That means not empowering parents with school choice, including the choice of private schools, which have significantly lower per-pupil costs.

Welfare reform, the largest legislative achievement of the 1990s, diminished the Democratic Party's dependency-bureaucracy complex. That complex consists of wards of government and their government supervisors. And Bush's "ownership society" is another step in the plan to reduce the supply of government by reducing the demand for it.

That felicitous formulation, from Jonathan Rauch's masterful analysis of Bush's domestic ambitions (National Journal, July 26, 2003), follows from two axioms of which conservatives are fond: Give a person a fish and you give the person a meal; teach the person to fish and you give a livelihood. And: No one washes a rental car. Meaning people behave most responsibly about what they own. Hence Bush's menu of incentives for private retirement, health, education and savings accounts.

Conservatives hope such measures will encourage aptitudes that will make the welfare state compatible with traditional American individualism and self-reliance. And conservatives hope such aptitudes will result in Republican attitudes, especially among the elderly and other people with portfolios of equities.

Forty years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater, the elderly were the most conservative age cohort. Today the elderly are the most liberal.

About 2.4 million Americans die each year. Most are elderly, and a majority of that majority are Democrats, for two reasons: Most of them formed their political sensibilities in the Roosevelt-Truman-Kennedy-Johnson era of Democratic presidential ascendancy. And the elderly are devoted to big government: Social Security and Medicare by themselves are 33 percent of federal outlays.

About 7 million members of the elderly cohort from that Democratic presidential era have died since the 2000 election. And a Republican-leaning cohort that the Bush agenda aims to enlarge -- owners of stock -- continues to expand. In 1980, 20 percent of adults owned stock. Today 60 percent do, as do more than 70 percent of those who will vote on Nov. 2.

In addition to their economic rationale, the Bush tax cuts have the political purpose of crimping Democrats' abilities to satisfy their factions' desires for spending. And Bush's private retirement, health and education savings accounts would implement the theory that, as Rauch says, Republicans will empower the people, who in turn will empower Republicans.

Furthermore, Social Security private investment accounts would simultaneously multiply investors and diminish both dependence on government and resistance to reduction of it. Among some prescient Democrats this pincer strategy provokes anxiety, and some of today's fury.