Bush’s Opportunity


George W. Bush and Al Gore battled to the closest popular vote since 1960, theHouse and Senate are as evenly split as they have ever been, and a largepercentage 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 forhim. He can do that symbolically, with White House meetings and unexpectedCabinet appointments (Norm Mineta at Transportation, for example). But healso needs to put forth a governing agenda larger than himself, to move thefocus 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 theexit polls.

One of the most interesting questions of this election is why anear-incumbent in a time of peace and prosperity didn't win in a landslideagainst a less experienced opponent—a man whose ability to be president wasquestioned by leading Democrats and journalists? Sophisticated mathematicalmodels of presidential elections predicted that Vice President Al Gore wouldget 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 tothat. And given Bush's standing in the polls before the last-minuterevelation of his drunk-driving arrest, that seems to have cost him anothercouple of points. Yet Gore received only 50 percent of the two-party votecast. Why?

The logical conclusion is that the sharp ideological clash between Gore'sgovernment-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 butsmaller government and Social Security privatization. A Los Angeles TimesPoll in September found that Americans preferred "smaller government withfewer services" to "larger government with many services" by 59 percent to26 percent.

And despite Gore's scare campaign against Bush's Social Security plan,voters continue to support allowing individuals to make private investmentswith their Social Security dollars. The exit polls asked, "Do you support oroppose a plan in which individuals could invest some of their SocialSecurity taxes in the stock market?" By 57 percent to 39 percent, thosepolled said they favored such a plan.

The exit poll actually showed lower support for private investment than haveother polls, perhaps because it referred to "investing in the stock market,"which sounds risky to many people. But private investment need not involvestocks. People could earn more money than Social Security promises if theyinvested their retirement taxes in Treasury bonds, corporate bonds, a mixedportfolio of stocks and bonds, or guaranteed insurance products. (See thecalculator at www.socialsecurity.org.)

If the exit poll had offered those safer options, no doubt it would havefound even greater support for private investment. Other polls have found upto 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, heought to move promptly to shift the national debate from his contestedelection and to his winning ideas.

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

Young voters gave Gore a slight edge over Bush, but the opportunity to getout of a Social Security system they have no confidence in should pull theminto Bush's camp if he were to make Social Security reform the big issue of2001. And it shouldn't hurt him much with older voters: Even after theconstant drumbeat of Social Security scare ads, older voters went for Goreonly 51 percent to 47 percent.

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