What's important?

Posted: Jul 13, 2004 12:00 AM

 In politics and polling, you sometimes have to take an extra step back to get a wide angle on what truly interests the public -- as opposed to what the politicians think or want the public to be interested in.

 Our latest InsiderAdvantage national survey asked:

 Which of the following is most important to you in deciding how to vote in the presidential election?

 Ending the war in Iraq:      35 percent
 Continuing the war on terror with current methods:   22 percent
 Reducing the national debt:     18 percent
 Electing the candidate you find more likeable:    10 percent
 Preserving the 2001 tax cuts:       5 percent
 Something else:         8 percent
 Don't know:          2 percent

 The poll was conducted June 25-26 among 500 likely voters nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 The poll clearly shows that Iraq remains the most significant issue in the minds of at least a plurality of respondents. But maintaining the current level of fighting terrorism wasn't too far behind. Neither response is surprising. Certainly not as surprising as the piddling percentage of those who named preserving the Bush tax cuts as their top priority come November.

 The tax cut not important? Do people not realize the dramatic economic turnaround we're now enjoying is at least partially a result of Bush's insistence on pumping government proceeds back into the economy? That it restored optimism back into the business community, and to individuals as well? Apparently not.

 That's the problem. As incumbents usually do, Bush and his team are finding themselves having to play defense in this campaign. Meanwhile, Kerry and the Democrats are basking in the glow of admiration for the good looks and charm of John Edwards. What's missing in all this is a new idea or two. And the election desperately needs them.

 Some fresh proposals would almost certainly boost the Bush ticket, especially when its foreign policy tough-mindedness and domestic successes are either ignored or under attack.

 Here's one sample "unique idea" that just might fly, if only someone has the courage to offer it or something else new. A variation on this idea might be a policy concept already proven in its appeal and effectiveness, but offered now with a new twist, or on a grander scale.

 In 1990, Zell Miller swept into office as governor of Georgia largely because of his promise to institute a state-government-based lottery whose proceeds would provide deserving high school seniors with free college scholarships. Believe it or not, one of the most conservative states in the U.S. went head over heels for the chance to win millions, or at least the chance to pack their kids off to college for free. This lottery became so popular that then-President Bill Clinton championed a watered-down version of the same scholarship -- minus the lottery -- during his bid for re-election.

 Personally, I've never been a big fan of lotteries. But I can spot a sure-fire political and public policy winner when I see one. That said, a lottery without a purpose isn't public policy; it's only fun with the government's seal of approval.

 And that brings me to what makes this idea unique. Polling consistently tells us that even Americans who consider themselves financially "well-off" rate as one of their biggest fears the possibility of suffering a catastrophic health crisis, either for themselves or for a family member. This issue holds great campaign appeal, not the least because it has broad appeal and is comprehensible to most of us. Too many policy proposals put before the American people apply only to a small minority of people, or are just too abstract or convoluted to be understood. But the idea of being wiped out financially by a debilitating illness is something we can all relate to.

 Of course, a liberal answer might be -- once again -- to pawn off the problem to taxpayers by making them foot the bill. But that would only add to an already troubling federal deficit, while making us more and more reliant on government to provide this most basic of necessities.

 Instead, why not consider the solution based on the wildly successfully lottery that Zell Miller brought to Georgia? The Republicans could even use Miller to help promote it. After all, the Democratic senator will be making probably the most-talked about speech at the upcoming GOP national convention in his endorsement of President Bush.

 Let the policy gurus and industry experts work out the details. Have them invent a national lottery. One that's attractive enough to bring in big federal dollars, but one that is also timed so that its ticket purchases and payouts don't hurt the state's lotteries. Make it a lottery that would protect its proceeds in a "trust fund" for, at minimum, supplemental health care for those facing long-term illness. All the better if this money set-aside could alleviate the tax burden for health care that now rests on individual taxpayers and the health-care industry itself.

 Of course, any fool knows that sound policy ideas come only from the geniuses that run these presidential campaigns; certainly not from silly scribes writing from the policy perimeter. But at least give me credit for doing the one thing that neither presidential campaign has yet to do: offering something fresh and comprehensible for the public to chew on. Based on the polling numbers I've seen over the years, I'm willing to "bet" that a "Health Care Hope" national lottery could sweep a conservative ticket right back into office.