Fresh start squandered

July 19, 2005

BURIED WELL behind the big headlines of these summer days comes word that Congress has postponed work on President Bush's Social Security overhaul perhaps beyond any real chance of enactment this term.

No surprise there. Republicans were unable to form any kind of consensus on the politically volatile issue, and Mr. Bush never firmed up his own ideas into a specific proposal. Democrats refused to engage at all. Polls show voters turning thumbs down.

Still, there is a profound sense of opportunity lost. If the president hadn't offered such an ideologically charged plan for shoring up the solvency of the nation's most popular program or if he had directed his ambitions toward a more urgent cause, such as ensuring that all Americans have access to quality health care, he might be well on his way toward a huge contribution to the nation.

Instead, Mr. Bush seems to have wasted what was potentially the most productive period of his second term.

Granted, any form of tinkering with Social Security is politically radioactive, which is why presidents rarely muster the courage to attempt it.

But if Mr. Bush had approached his reforms in a bipartisan manner, fostering changes that had the broadest possible appeal, he would have had a much a better chance of putting together a working majority for change.

In this case, though, many Democrats believe Mr. Bush was driven primarily by the desire to dismantle this last vestige of the Roosevelt New Deal era in hopes of robbing the Democratic Party of a rallying cause.

Thus, he set out to remake Social Security along the philosophical lines favored by GOP conservatives. Instead of preserving the safety net of the national retirement program, Mr. Bush promoted a shift to personal savings accounts and an every-man-for-himself mentality.

The notion didn't fly, in part because it would have cost $1 trillion or so and still not made even a dent in Social Security's solvency problem, which requires reduced benefits, higher taxes or a combination of the two.

Some Republicans are backing legislation that would address the solvency concerns without creating personal accounts. But that would deny Mr. Bush the political and ideological victories that seem his true goal.

Leaders of the powerful financial committees in the House and Senate where successful Social Security legislation would be shaped have put off the arduous task until the fall. But the closer they get to next year's elections, the harder the job will be.

Mr. Bush thought he won a mandate through his narrow re-election victory and had political capital to spend on dismantling Social Security for his own political ends. He was wrong on both counts - and failed to generate even moderate enthusiasm for his top domestic priority during months of nonstop campaigning since then.

Even without a mandate, second terms always provide fresh starts. But so far, Mr. Bush appears to have squandered his.

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