State of Disunion
Even with his shaky State of the Union address and dipping approval ratings, President Bush unfortunately remains in a strong position for the 2004 election. Saddam is captured, GDP is surging, and his reelection war chest has a staggering $100 million in the bank. And while his Democratic foes battle each other in primary contests across the country, Bush used his prime-time address to the nation to unveil his future for America, one grandly titled the "Ownership Society."
The administration's Ownership Society vision, a theme that along with wartime leadership will highlight his reelection drive, seeks to address the president's vulnerability over the jobless recovery. It aims to create a new American homo economicus, armed for battle in the new economy. Faithful to the GOP's twin mantras of rugged individualism and free markets, the plan is to consolidate an array of federal programs with tax incentives for personal saving, retirement, job training, and health coverage, among others. Thus, the president will call on Americans to unite behind his dual crusades against terror abroad and joblessness at home.
Ironically, it is the public's growing realization that it is American national unity itself that is under attack by the GOP during a time of war that presents Democrats with their best chance for victory in 2004. In reality, the president and his party are creating an "Opt Out Society," a nation where Americans, while standing shoulder to shoulder against foreign foes, are divided and pitted against each other by an ideology of market worship, the privatization or abandonment of traditional government roles, and a radical individualism. Their Opt Out Society encourages Americans to withdraw their support from their country, their government, their communities, their schools and each other.
From education, energy and the environment to health care, retirement security, and economic growth, the Bush Opt Out program represents an all-out assault on common national purpose in the United States. Government not only can't solve problems, it has no moral claim on its citizens participation in a shared national effort to try. At the end of the day, you're on your own in a Hobbesian struggle of each against all; the government's role is to stand aside and let you fight it out.
Consider energy policy. The secretive Bush/Cheney energy plan merely rewards producers without reform and enshrines deregulation at any cost. In 2001, Bush's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission refused to pursue price caps, an investigation or any other intervention into what Californians rightly claimed to have been market manipulation by companies like Enron and Duke Power. (This, and not the crisis of corporate governance, is the true lesson of Enron.) At a time of war when American energy independence must be an urgent national goal, this administration until recently even balked at raising fuel efficiency standards.
Look next at education. This is perhaps the most dramatic example of administration's belief in rewarding citizens for undermining public institutions. With the recent the Supreme Court decision in the Cleveland case and the success of the voucher referendum in Colorado, "School Choice" will no doubt replace the underfunded "No Child Left Behind" act as the rallying cry in the second Bush administration. School vouchers represent the ultimate application of the market metaphor to public policy, as parents-as-consumers purchase educational performance as a product for their children. That there are other non-market considerations in educating our children, such as creating community, bridging races and classes, or inculcating American values, is irrelevant to the GOP: test scores are the only good in the market for education. (Supporting private and parochial schools, of course, is a happy by-product of vouchers.)
Pick almost any other area of public policy and see the GOP Opt Out program at work. Privatized, individual retirement accounts, despite the massive stock market losses during the Bush administration, will jeopardize the enormously successful Social Security program that eradicated poverty among the elderly. The privatization of Medicare and the creation of medical savings accounts will lead younger, healthier and wealthier Americans to withdraw from larger insurance pools, leaving higher premiums and reduced coverage for everyone else. Most cynical, the president claims his continued policy of upward income redistribution will drive economic growth, with war-time tax cuts made permanent, the end of the estate tax, and reduction of capital gains taxes that create a windfall for today's wealthy, while producing unprecedented budget deficits for our children tomorrow.
In sharp contrast to the divisive Opt Out agenda of the president, the Democrats should articulate a renewed public philosophy, a New American Bargain, that builds on wartime unity to modernize and cement Americans' unwritten agreements to each other, their communities and their government. This New American Bargain would instead create a "Reciprocity Society" that balances market incentives and market limitations, renews notions of public interest and the common good, encourages national service, and recognizes both individual rights and shared responsibilities.
What would a Democratic "New American Bargain" look like? Start with the creation of a Home Guard, which would call 250,000 Americans across races, classes and ethnicities to national service to police borders, guard ports, staff airport checkpoints, monitor major events, and watch energy installations. A national security-focused "USA Energy Act" would encourage American energy independence through venture funds for private sector investments in renewable energy, energy conservation tax credits for businesses, a gasoline price floor, and an auto fuel consumption surcharge to buyers of vehicles failing to meet target levels for fuel efficiency. For health care, Democrats at a minimum should ensure coverage of all children under 18, and encourage state, regional or national drug coops (as in Maine) to create Wal Mart-style purchasing power as a counterweight to the pharmaceutical industry. And to wrap it up, address the dangerous Bush deficit and provide fairness in tax policy across both income and age groups by enhancing the earned income tax credit, repealing the Bush tax cuts on incomes over $200,000, raising, not eliminating the cap, on the estate tax.
To a country engaged in a global struggle against terrorism, President Bush is telling Americans to opt out and to go it alone at home. His Ownership Society is a mean spirited and morally impoverished place where words like "common", "shared", "public interest", and "sacrifice" have no place. During this dark time of the war against terror, Democrats should remind us that we're all in this together, abroad and at home. By doing so, they might even regain the White House in 2004.