Dear rural/exurban Christian conservative voters:
Congratulations on your election victory. By going to the polls in unprecedented numbers Tuesday, you overwhelmed an enormous Democratic turnout and returned President Bush to office, along with a number of very conservative senators. Now Bush is preparing to repay your efforts by moving immediately on your highest priorities: a flat tax and privatizing Social Security.
Oh, wait. You didn't particularly hanker for those things, did you? The election is so far in the past now that it has receded into a hazy memory. But as I recall, you voted for Bush because of his position on one issue — he opposes gay marriage — and on the general principle that he is a godly man who shares your values. Now Bush has decided, conveniently enough, that those values are identical to those of his wealthy financiers. (Go to any meeting of the Club for Growth, a group of affluent, libertarian-leaning Bush backers who mostly live in Washington and New York City. I'm sure you'll find them, like victorious Okla-homophobe Sen. Tom Coburn, deeply concerned about rampant high school lesbianism in the Sooner State.)
Bush is claiming the election as a mandate. There are, however, a couple of ways to interpret that. The conventional meaning is that a candidate gained office by promising to do a certain thing. Ronald Reagan in 1980 had a mandate to cut taxes and bolster the military. Bill Clinton in 1992 had a mandate to raise taxes on the rich, expand healthcare, reform welfare. Those were the central promises of the two campaigns.
Bush uses the word somewhat differently. As he told reporters Thursday, "I earned capital in the campaign — political capital — and now I intend to spend it."
What that means is that all you small-town folk voted for him not to pursue an agenda but just because he embodies family values. That gives him political power that he can use for purposes utterly unrelated to the source of his popularity. Sure, Bush mentioned some of these purposes in the campaign. But the references tended to be perfunctory and in code. Start with taxes.
Though Bush talks about tax "simplification," he doesn't seriously believe it. He has littered the tax code with complicated new provisions, including a ludicrous corporate tax bill stuffed with special provisions for sausage producers, foreign dog-race gamblers and the like. Simplification really means making the tax code flatter — i.e. less progressive. He doesn't care about making taxes simpler; he just wants rich people to pay a smaller share of them. There's little evidence to suggest small-town Ohioans flocked to the polls so they could have a portion of George Soros' tax burden shifted onto themselves.
On Social Security, Bush was just as evasive. Here, again, the tiny minority of people who closely follow this understood his code words. He wants to divert Social Security taxes into private accounts. Because those taxes pay for the benefits of current retirees, his plan would require cutting benefits or driving the national debt even higher.
Bush, of course, went to great pains to distance himself from these unpleasant facts. In 2001, he appointed a commission that proposed three plans to partly privatize Social Security, but he declined to embrace the panel's findings. A few weeks before the election, a New York Times Magazine story reported that Bush told GOP donors he planned to push privatization after the election. John Kerry's campaign circulated a nonpartisan study showing what the benefit cuts in one of the commission's plans would entail. Bush's spokesman dismissed the charge that he favored privatization or benefit-cutting as a "false, baseless attack."
Here's what Bush said Thursday: "I had asked [Daniel Patrick Moynihan], prior to his passing, to chair a committee of notable Americans to come up with some ideas on Social Security, and they did so. And it's a good place for members of Congress to start."
Got that? Last week, if you had described Bush as advocating the commission's plans, he would have denounced you for promoting a hysterical lie. Now they are at the top of the list of things he's saying he was elected specifically to enact.
Meanwhile, what about opposing gay marriage, the one mandate Bush might legitimately claim? Earlier this year, Bush barely lifted a finger in support of a constitutional amendment banning it. (Compare this to the furious arm-twisting he performs to get moderates to back his tax cuts.) If he has a mandate to do anything, it's to bring up the amendment again. However, he's said nothing about doing so, and nobody expects him to.
No surprise there — it's hardly in the Republican Party's interest. If gay marriage is banned everywhere, what's going to bring all those heartland conservatives to the polls next time?
© 2004 LA Times