Bush And The "Vision Thing"
Source Roger Hickey
Date 04/09/03/12:29

Bush And The "Vision Thing"
Roger Hickey
September 01, 2004

New York City -This election should be a referendum on President George W.
Bush's record over the past four years in office and whether he has any new
ideas that would justify voters giving him another term in the White
House.  Yet, friends of Bush's have found a way to focus the presidential
debate not on his plans for the country's future or even the war in Iraq,
but on John Kerry's actions 30 years ago in Vietnam.  Time will tell
whether the strategy will work for Bush or backfire.  But most voters tell
pollsters that what they really want to hear is the candidates' proposals
for jobs, health care and the kind of country our kids will inherit.

Democrats and progressives argue that each of these problems requires
concerted government action. Bush and the Republicans don't believe in
government-and they have systematically slashed public revenues.  So they
need an agenda that promises to address the problems, while continuing
their crusade to cut taxes for the wealthy and downsize government.

So what does Bush have to sell? The following is a guide for concerned
voters-and for the media who should be covering the real agenda of the
candidates for president.

Defending His Tax Cut Gamble

First and foremost, Bush's domestic agenda is wedded to the massive tax
cuts he pushed through Congress in his first term.  Quite correctly, Bush
conservatives argue that spurring a growing economy is the best thing a
president can do for Americans. "The best social program is a job for all
who want one," they argue.  Unfortunately for Bush, despite his tax cuts,
the economy has continued to be sluggish, poverty is growing, job growth
hasn't come anywhere near replacing the 3 million jobs lost in the Bush
recession, and Americans with jobs are experiencing falling real wages,
eroding benefits and general insecurity.

Since he has no other plan for economic growth and job creation, Bush will
have to insist-during this week's convention and afterward-that the Bush
tax cuts will eventually produce an economic recovery capable of generating
substantial job growth.  Most Americans understand what the Congressional
Budget Office recently reported:  The Bush tax cuts have benefited the
wealthy far more than the rest of us, while blowing a $3.9 trillion hole in
the federal budget over the next 10 years.

Even for the small minority who would find this tradeoff acceptable, the
continuing failure of the Bush tax cuts to produce growth and jobs is
becoming embarrassing.  For the rest of us, the Bush record is tax
unfairness and high unemployment- devastating cuts in public investment,
rising local taxes and continuing economic sluggishness and growing

With a record like that, even an administration that claims tax cuts will-
eventually- solve all problems has an incentive to come up with some other
"new ideas" if only to distract the public from the continuing failure of
its major economy gamble on tax cuts.

Call It Bush's "I Don't Have A Plan" Plan

At the convention President Bush will unveil, not for the first time, an
overarching theme designed to convince voters he has a vision for a second
term: the Ownership Society.  The Bush team has tried out this phrase
sporadically over the last year or so- in a few unnoticed speeches, press
releases, fact sheets and interviews by White House staffers like Mary
Matlin.  And the cover story of the latest Business Week , obviously
informed by White House spinners, gives us a preview of what to
expect.  Bush's "ownership society" is an attempt to repackage a set of
proposals that mainly benefit the wealthy and the corporations under the
pretense of addressing real "kitchen table" concerns of the middle class
and the poor.  Virtually all the specific proposals, when presented and
explained to average voters in polling or focus groups, are very
unpopular.  And there is considerable evidence that most already
overwhelmed and overworked Americans reject   the "big idea" that
individuals must take greater responsibility for designing and "owning"
their health care, retirement plans, education and work time.

In the face of new Census Bureau reports showing more Americans are living
in poverty and a new CBO report showing that only the rich have benefited
from Bush's tax cuts, Bush's handlers will have to practice some skillful
spin. They must maintain that those same tax cuts-extended and made
permanent- will someday soon result in revived economic growth and
widespread economic prosperity.  They will also have to unveil the
Ownership Society theme in a way that makes it look grander and more
popular than the sum of its unpopular parts.

Unfortunately, the media have shown themselves to be more than willing to
report Bush administration spin as real substance.  All the more important
that activist groups understand what Bush is proposing- and find ways to
explain to their fellow citizens what a hollow agenda the whole package

Health Care: No Real Solutions

The costs of health care premiums are skyrocketing, and the Census Bureau
has just issued a report showing that 45 million Americans have no health
insurance at all- a 3.2 percent increase over the 43.6 million who had no
coverage a year ago.  (Among people under 65, almost 18 percent of all
Americans were uninsured.)  In the face of this certified crisis, what is
George W. Bush's proposed solution?  Tax credits for people who purchase
their own health care premiums (which many experts believe will give
employers and excuse to bail out of paying for health care
altogether).  And tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans who have
enough income to shelter some of it-tax free-in Health Savings Accounts to
pay for catastrophic health care costs.  Many observers have noted the only
way these proposals would reduce health care costs would be by placing the
burden of payment on individuals, encouraging them to avoid the doctor even
for crucial preventative health care.  And experts have already questioned
Bush's relatively modest projections about how many Americans his plan
would cover. Bush's Ownership Society forces individuals to own
responsibility for their own health care themselves- and, as usual,
provides help in the way of tax subsidies only to those who are rich enough
to take advantage of the subsidies.

Prescription Drug Benefit For HMOs And Drug Companies

At the convention, Bush is sure to brag that he has produced a prescription
drug benefit for seniors, but if he is smart he will downplay the details,
because polling shows that the details of the Bush plan are unpopular with
a majority of retirees.  Why?  Because the new law is confusing, with a
truly crazy benefit structure requiring an advanced degree to
understand.  But the most unpopular aspect of the Bush drug plan is the way
it clearly benefits HMOs and big drug companies more than seniors.  The
bill prohibits Medicare from using government buying power to get lower
prices for drugs.  And a bizarre system of subsidies to HMOs helps assure
that more and more seniors will be dumped into HMOs to get their
Medicare.  In the Ownership Society version of Medicare prescription drug
benefits, the big drug industry and HMOs do very well, while seniors get
the short end of the stick.  This is why thousands of activists around the
country are joining together to demand to know whether candidates for
Congress and the presidency stand with seniors or with the corporations who
benefit from the Bush drug plan [for more information, click here ].  They
are demanding a prescription drug benefit within Medicare that will bring
prices down.

Undermining Retirement Security

Amazingly, the Bush Ownership Society agenda would undermine the one
reliable and guaranteed leg of the three-legged retirement stool: the
Social Security system.  Americans are increasingly insecure about their
retirement.  Gone are the days when most employers provided their employees
with real "defined benefit" pensions.  Instead, most workers are lucky if
their employer contributes to an IRA or 401K account which the employee is
responsible for investing in the stock market, win or lose.  Most workers
have little of their income left over for retirement savings after living
costs are covered- and many are in debt to make ends meet.  In this
environment, what is the Bush Ownership Society program for
retirement?  They want to privatize Social Security by cutting guaranteed
benefits in order to create risky private accounts invested in the stock
market.  Experts have shown that privatization would require more than $1
trillion in transition costs, far less than the costs of protecting Social
Security's guaranteed benefits for the next 80 years.

Education Left Behind

Education was the signature issue that allowed Bush to portray himself as a
"compassionate conservative" in the 2000 elections.  But Bush's No Child
Left Behind legislation imposed enormous burdens on public schools,
requiring what many experts and teachers call "mindless" testing, while
failing to provide the resources necessary to improve education- or even to
pay for the testing.  President Bush has also failed to do anything about
the high cost of college, but has increased the costs of higher education
by kow-towing to the private banking sector.   President Bush as actually
tried to increase the costs of financing student loans, costing the average
student borrower about $5,500 more in interest payments, according to the
Congressional Research Service.  Led by the Campaign for America 's Future,
NEA and, a massive nationwide movement will conduct thousands of
house meetings to demand real action to improve education.

Flexibility At Work-For Employers, That Is

At a campaign speech on July 31 in Pittsburgh, President Bush tried to use
the Ownership Society packaging as a framework for a set of administration
proposals that have widely been seen as helping employers, not
workers:   "We'll help American families keep something they don't have
nearly enough of, and that's time, time to be with your kids, time to take
care of your elderly parents, time to help yourself by education. Congress
needs to enact what we call comp-time and flex-time, to help American
families better juggle work and home duties."

But the so-called "comp time" legislation Bush is pushing-along with the
new overtime rules his Labor Department  has just put in place-would
actually reduce the average worker's control over their work time, and thus
over their time with their kids.  The new overtime rules would make over 6
million workers vulnerable to losing overtime pay when the boss requires
them to work over 40 hours a week. The "comp time" law would undermine the
basic wage and hour legislation, fought for and won by the labor movement.
Under the new legislation, employers could not only require employees to
work overtime, but, instead of being required to pay them time and a half,
the boss could simply promise to give them "comp time" at some future time,
not at the employee's choosing.  Here is a dramatic example of how the
Ownership Society proposals are being sold as programs to enhance the
freedom and self-determination of working Americans, but they are, in fact,
designed to enhance the power, flexibility and bottom-line prerogatives of
corporations, employers and Wall Street.

Taxes:  Killing Progressive Taxation and Shifting the Burden from Capital
to Workers

Like the whole Bush economic program, the heart of the Ownership Society
agenda is cutting taxes for the wealthy and the corporations.  Since 2001,
President Bush's tax cuts have shifted federal tax payments from the
richest Americans to a wide swath of middle-class families, according to
the newest analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO study found
that the wealthiest 20 percent, whose incomes averaged $182,700 in 2001,
saw their share of federal taxes drop from 64.4 percent of total tax
payments in 2001 to 63.5 percent this year. The top 1 percent, earning $1.1
million, saw their share fall to 20.1 percent of the total, from 22.2

Bush is calling on Congress to make permanent those parts of his tax cuts
that are still temporary, abolish the tax on the estates of the super
wealthy and he is trying for still more reductions in the taxes on capital
gains and on corporate profits. On top of this, Bush recently mused that he
would like to replace the progressive income tax with a regressive national
sales tax. Clearly, the goal of Bush and the conservatives around him is
not only to starve progressive government, but to shift the burden of
taxation off of income earned by capital and investment and onto the backs
of working Americans exclusively.  And given another four years, they might
well achieve that goal completely.

Ownership Society vs. Shared Security

Clearly, the Ownership Society program that Bush will present to the
Republican Convention will contain a hodge-podge of old conservative
proposals repackaged to distract public and press attention from the fact
that Bush's real domestic agenda-tax cuts for the wealthy- are failing to
produce growth and jobs.  If enacted, they would worsen the growing
polarization of American society and concentration of wealth and power.

But here's a more pressing pragmatic question:"Will the press and the
American people buy them?"  Most likely, the Ownership Society proposals
will serve a temporary purpose of getting Bush through the convention with
the illusion of having a program.  Most Americans will not notice.  But if
they do, they may well backfire.

In focus groups conducted in early March in Cleveland and Atlanta, public
opinion analyst Celinda Lake asked likely voters their reactions to the
Ownership Society  proposals.  After hearing a description of the phrase
"ownership society", voter perceptions shifted pretty solidly
negative.  The Ownership Society proposals "evoked images of an end to the
social safety net.  In addition, many of the participants thought the idea
of controlling their own health care, retirement, and children's education
sounded burdensome and frightening.  In a system where there would be clear
winners and clear losers, they worried what how they and their families
would fare."

Lake found that the term "shared security" was much more popular.  "In
contrast to the individualism that participant associated with "ownership
society", they perceived "shared security" as a model in which people
banded together to ensure the essentials and protect the vulnerable.  It
even assuaged the doubts of some of the skeptics, as all of the
participants saw a need for some form of a social safety net, particularly
in regards to Social Security and Medicare, health care and education."

This hopeful note for Democrats requires two things to be made
real:  First, progressives must unmask the Bush agenda for what it
is:  another set of plans to aid the wealthy and powerful which undermining
the rest of us.  And an aggressive campaign to explain and sell an agenda
of "shared security" to the America people.

Our work is cut out for us.

Roger Hickey is co-director of the Campaign for America 's Future.

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