Bush must not be timid now

Posted: Jul 16, 2003 12:00 AM

It is not too early to consider the themes of President Bush's reelection campaign. Incumbent presidents usually announce their major initiatives in the January State of the Union Address of the re-election year. That speech is in penultimate form by Christmas and its outline is usually agreed upon by the late autumn. The quiet month of August is an excellent time for the president's senior strategists to start batting around different concepts.

The temptation of most incumbent presidents who are reasonably popular by the third year is not to raise any controversial issues in the campaign year. In the lead-up to Ronald Reagan's 1984 re-election bid, his advisors fought over precisely this point. We Reaganites (I was then on Reagan's White House staff) argued for a big domestic initiative that would create a mandate for second-term action, recognizing that it might cost him 5 percent of the popular vote. The pragmatists argued for a soft theme that would maximize the vote. They won. As did Reagan, with almost 60 percent of the vote. His theme was Morning in America. As it turned out, history gave Ronald Reagan his second-term mission in the form of finally killing off the evil Soviet Empire. But running on first-term accomplishments is a deceptively dangerous strategy. Electorates reasonably ask "What are you going to do for us tomorrow?" as Winston Churchill rudely found out in 1945, when his heroic war leadership was insufficient to win him the first post-war election.

Of course, in some form, peace and prosperity (either gaining them or sustaining them) are always the overarching themes of presidential elections (with the challenger always adding 'throw the bum out' to his theme package). But below such generalizations, presidential candidates usually champion large caliber program proposals as the means for gaining peace and prosperity (e.g., peace through strength, across-the-board tax cuts, etc.) Whatever the program being proposed, it needs to meet two criteria: (1) it must be big enough to affect most voters, with at least the possibility of appealing to a majority of the public, and (2) it should not offend the candidates' loyal base of voters.

For President Bush, a number of big domestic issues doubtlessly beckon. In next year's State of the Union Address, he can re-launch, with vigor, his call for partial privatization of Social Security. Favored by his conservative base, increasingly acceptable to marginal Republican and Independent voters, and affecting almost all Americans, it meets the standard. Some form of dealing with ever-rising health costs is a perennial candidate for presidential championing (see Dick Gephardt's healthcare proposal.) But depending on the proposal, it could easily outrage the conservative base in the country. Other big issues, though not currently prominent with the electorate, are coming to grips with our shrinking industrial base, managing the vast unfunded pension obligations of both the public and private sector, and rebuilding and expanding our natural gas production and distribution capacity.

But I propose something completely different. We need a vast, volunteer citizen auxiliary to help law enforcement in civil defense. When (or, very optimistically, if) we are hit by a major, biological terrorist attack, hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans will needlessly die because we are currently incapable of managing the emergency services and law enforcement aftermath of such a tragedy. In gaming out the scenarios, of those test games with which I am familiar, there is always a meltdown -- not at the diagnostic level, but at the emergency services and law enforcement level. Much as the military has reserve forces to call upon in an emergency, we need legions of trained and organized private citizens who can be called up to assist emergency and law enforcement services in a crisis. During WWII, thousands of Londoners were trained and used for fire fighting, blackout management, nursing, etc. Particularly in big cities, but, given the interconnectedness of American life today, even in smaller towns, we need to prepare today to save lives tomorrow.

Shortly after September 11, many observers complained that President Bush had not called on the average American to sacrifice in the war on terrorism. The president was right, then, to reject such counsel implicitly on the ground that mere symbolic sacrifice is foolish and phony. But now, almost two years on, there is something real and badly needed that government cannot do alone. This is a doable project on a grand scale that will surely cost some billions of dollars to set up and manage, but may well save thousands or millions of lives when the dreaded day comes. Bringing into being such a program would be the finest example of the Washington maxim that good policy is good politics.