Commentary

Bush’s Opportunity

George W. Bush and Al Gore battled to the closest popular vote since 1960, the House and Senate are as evenly split as they have ever been, and a large percentage of the American people think the Bush presidency is illegitimate. Under the circumstances, can President Bush govern?

Obviously, he needs to reach out to some of the people who didn’t vote for him. He can do that symbolically, with White House meetings and unexpected Cabinet appointments (Norm Mineta at Transportation, for example). But he also needs to put forth a governing agenda larger than himself, to move the focus away from the person of the president and onto his legislative agenda. Such an agenda needs to be shaped by a close reading of the vote and the exit polls.

One of the most interesting questions of this election is why a near-incumbent in a time of peace and prosperity didn’t win in a landslide against a less experienced opponent—a man whose ability to be president was questioned by leading Democrats and journalists? Sophisticated mathematical models of presidential elections predicted that Vice President Al Gore would get 53 percent to 60 percent of the votes cast for the two major candidates. The doubts raised about Bush’s abilities should have added a point or two to that. And given Bush’s standing in the polls before the last-minute revelation of his drunk-driving arrest, that seems to have cost him another couple of points. Yet Gore received only 50 percent of the two-party vote cast. Why?

The logical conclusion is that the sharp ideological clash between Gore’s government-as-Santa-Claus agenda and Bush’s mantra of “he trusts government, I trust you” cost Gore about seven points from what the models projected.

Indeed, the big winners in the election were neither Bush nor Gore but smaller government and Social Security privatization. A Los Angeles Times Poll in September found that Americans preferred “smaller government with fewer services” to “larger government with many services” by 59 percent to 26 percent.

And despite Gore’s scare campaign against Bush’s Social Security plan, voters continue to support allowing individuals to make private investments with their Social Security dollars. The exit polls asked, “Do you support or oppose a plan in which individuals could invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market?” By 57 percent to 39 percent, those polled said they favored such a plan.

The exit poll actually showed lower support for private investment than have other polls, perhaps because it referred to “investing in the stock market,” which sounds risky to many people. But private investment need not involve stocks. People could earn more money than Social Security promises if they invested their retirement taxes in Treasury bonds, corporate bonds, a mixed portfolio of stocks and bonds, or guaranteed insurance products. (See the calculator at www.socialsecurity.org.)

If the exit poll had offered those safer options, no doubt it would have found even greater support for private investment. Other polls have found up to 70 percent support for full privatization of Social Security.

So there are at least two things more popular with voters than George W. Bush: smaller government and Social Security privatization. As president, he ought to move promptly to shift the national debate from his contested election and to his winning ideas.

Letting people invest their Social Security money in privately managed individual accounts would offer Bush a chance to expand his own base of support and the Republican constituency. Privatization scores well with black voters (74 percent in a Zogby poll last March) and especially with younger voters: more than 90 percent among Americans aged 18-34.

Young voters gave Gore a slight edge over Bush, but the opportunity to get out of a Social Security system they have no confidence in should pull them into Bush’s camp if he were to make Social Security reform the big issue of 2001. And it shouldn’t hurt him much with older voters: Even after the constant drumbeat of Social Security scare ads, older voters went for Gore only 51 percent to 47 percent.

Which would Bush like the country to be talking about for the next six months, dimpled chads or investing in the new economy? It’s his choice.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and co-editor of the “Cato Handbook for Congress.”