A heady moment

December 16, 2003

PRESIDENT BUSH struggled visibly yesterday to contain any sign of smugness at his year-end news conference, and mostly succeeded. There was no disguising, though, the confidence of a politician heading into a re-election contest on a very strong note.

The all-important economy appears to be rebounding, with good news even from the manufacturing sector. Mr. Bush has just signed into law the first major expansion of Medicare since the 1960s, pre-empting the Democrats on another key domestic issue. And the capture of Saddam Hussein has at least temporarily knocked the wind out of the anti-war fervor fueling the drive of leading Democratic challenger Howard Dean, who was promptly set upon by other contenders for the nomination.

However, few know better than Mr. Bush, who watched his father's once-solid re-election prospects disintegrate rapidly, how little security there is in politics - no matter how heady this moment may be. Both he and his would-be successors should look at it as an opportunity to try to broaden their appeal by tackling some critical topics that so far have gotten little attention.

Not that the guns-and-butter arguments are over. The capture of the Iraqi dictator neither ensures stability of the country nor justifies the U.S. invasion. And the economic recovery is by no means lifting all boats, with many Americans still jobless.

But the nation also faces other challenges that should be widely aired, and vigorously debated, during next year's presidential campaign. Some examples:

With the federal deficit expected to top a half-trillion dollars this year, bringing the budget back to balance defies simple solutions, such as the Bush proposal to rein in domestic social spending, or the Dean plan to re-impose congressional budget limits, especially when both candidates support increased spending programs. What gets cut?

A leading category for increased spending - promoted by congressional Republicans as well as Democratic White House hopefuls - is universal health care. Dr. Dean would repeal Mr. Bush's tax cuts to pay for it; Republicans are considering more tax breaks. Is either approach practical?

Mr. Bush is using regulatory means to unravel long-standing environmental protections to help his industrial allies. This short-sighted policy isn't fully supported even within his own party, but clean air, clean water and the preservation of natural resources are treated as an afterthought. That shouldn't be.

Civil liberties and personal privacy have been eroded by sweeping new government powers approved in the wake of 9/11 to enhance security. A rare alliance of conservatives and liberals agrees that the trade-off needs to be urgently re-examined, and individual rights restored.

The president can rightly assume peace and prosperity will be the twin concerns on which he is judged. But he and those who would replace him have to answer for the other elements that define the quality of life in this country as well.

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