Second Term, Second Chance

President Bush is now the first president since his father in 1988 to win the majority of the popular vote. Both houses of Congress are now under Republican control.

With this decisive victory, Bush no longer has to fight the “selected, not elected” rhetoric of 2000, nor does he have to worry about a divided Senate or his own re-election.

So what should a second Bush term look like? The president's own campaign promises would be a good place to start. During the campaign, President Bush said he’d like to move America more toward an “ownership society”—a society that values individualism, private enterprise, and personal responsibility over state paternalism. He said he trusts the American people more than he trusts Washington when it comes to deciding how best to spend their money.

Now is the time to prove his commitment to these ideals, because these were not the themes or results of his first term— which was disastrous in terms of promoting “ownership society” ideals. Bush and the Republican Congress doled out political favors, grew government like no administration in 40 years, and expanded the role of the regulatory state. It’s time to roll back the influence of government in our lives.

However, should the president make good on his 2004 campaign promises, he could establish for himself a Reaganesque legacy as a president who values freedom, responsibility and civil society over politics, power, and party control.

Here’s what President Bush should do in a second term:

1. Reform Social Security.

President Bush promised to push Congress to give Americans ownership over their Social Security taxes in his first term, but backed off when the issue became politically perilous. Reforming Social Security is both a practical issue and a moral one.

Practical, because if we don’t do something, the system will go broke before workers under 30 see their first checks. Moral, because the government has long sold Social Security as a “trust fund.” It isn’t. It’s an intergenerational transfer of wealth. It can only accurately be called “trust fund” when Americans get true ownership over the money they pay into the system.

2. Reform the tax code.

The federal tax code is over 17,000 pages long, and nearly impossible to understand or comply with. The Tax Foundation estimates that by 2007, Americans will spend $350 billion hiring accountants and actuaries and purchasing software, just to comply with federal tax laws.

President Bush should push for an alternative tax scheme – preferably a sales tax. At the very least, he and the Congress should simplify the tax code, end the corporate income tax, and end paycheck withholding. When Americans are forced to write one big check to the IRS each April, it’ll be much easier to rein in the growth of government.

3. Make government more transparent.

The Clinton administration was one of the most secretive in history; the Bush administration has been more secretive still. Huge swaths of government documents previously open to the public now routinely are classified. Government can only be truly accountable to the people when the people know what the government is doing.

Bush should invite an outside panel of experts to evaluate the way his administration classifies documents, with an eye toward making all but the most sensitive of national security information available to the public.

4. Free political speech.

Bush said in his first campaign that he believed efforts to restrict political speech and political donations during federal campaigns violated the First Amendment. He then signed those same restrictions into law. He has now hinted that he may support a ban on advertisements by 527 organizations, too.

Bush should return to his original instincts. In fact, he should move to deregulate the campaign process. Our government is increasingly prohibiting its citizens from criticizing government officials in the days leading up to Election Day – the day when we pass judgment on them.

Bush should move to repeal campaign finance laws, and allow American citizens to speak freely about our political process, and to use as big a megaphone as they can afford.

5. Leave sick people alone.

It’s unlikely, but this could be Bush’s “Nixon goes to China” issue. It’s difficult to understand how a “compassionate conservative” could get so caught up in drug war hysteria that he’d deny suffering people the right to seek relief wherever they might find it.

I’m referring specifically to the Justice Department’s war on medicinal marijuana and on prescription painkillers.

Bush’s drug war credentials could enable him to sell his fellow conservatives on the idea that it’s immoral to deny suffering people access to the drugs that might alleviate their symptoms — out of allegiance to the drug war.

6. Sunset every law.

Bush and the GOP Congress should pass a federal law — or even move for an amendment to the Constitution — that would make every law expire after three years unless it's specifically re-approved by Congress.

We have too many laws. Every one of them in some way puts restrictions on our freedom. Forcing Congress to re-vote on each law would both ensure that the laws on the books are up-to-date and appropriate as well as give Congress less time to pass new ones.

Here’s hoping that we’ll look back and find that President Bush spent his second term using his reelection, control over Congress and the skills and talents of his subordinates in ways that limited the role of government in our lives instead of expanding it, as happened in his first term.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at:

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