Thoughts on a second term

Some second-term ideas for the triumphant Bush administration:

Filibusters and judicial nominations. Beware of what happened to FDR in 1937 when, fresh from the most resounding reelection victory since the early days of the Republic, he became filled with hubris and proposed to pack the Supreme Court.Some second-term ideas for the triumphant Bush administration:

Filibusters and judicial nominations. Beware of what happened to FDR in 1937 when, fresh from the most resounding reelection victory since the early days of the Republic, he became filled with hubris and proposed to pack the Supreme Court.

Despite overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, the public backlash not only killed the plan but doomed his entire second-term agenda to disaster and defeat. The imperial overreach of FDR’s second term is well-explained by Kenneth Davis in his book Into the Storm.

This election was not won over abortion. It was won over the war on terror primarily and gay marriage secondarily. If the right attempts to twist its meaning to suit its purposes and use it to defang the checks-and-balances system, it will be guilty of its own form of imperial overreach. A three-percentage-point win will not sustain such an overturning of the system on which people of both parties rely to assure moderation.

After giving no hint of so radical a step during the campaign — indeed after keeping it well-hidden — for President Bush to spring it now would be seen as an act of treachery by the many pro-choice voters who backed him because of his international leadership, confident that the filibuster would prevent him from going to extremes in his appointments.

Filibusters, obnoxious as they are to democracy, have acquired an accepted place in our democracy. Just as senators no longer feel obliged to vote against cloture, as they once did out of courtesy to one another, so the public no longer feels that the necessity to attract 60 votes for judicial nominations is too onerous.

If Bush jams through a ban on filibusters on nominations and then jams through Clarence Thomas as chief justice (by itself this would be OK) and then pushes a Thomas or Antonin Scalia clone for the open spot on the court, he will squander a huge segment of the political capital on which he is relying for more important tasks ahead.

Social Security. What Bush really wants is to make private investment of a portion of Social Security taxes possible for those who want to do it. What he must also do is reform the benefit structure to prolong the life of the trust fund.

He would have to cut benefits whether or not he proposed private investment, but Democrats will claim that he is cutting them to allow private investment. That won’t be true, but it is how the Democrats will play it.

To counter that move and to make the package politically acceptable, Bush must somehow finesse the necessity to raise the retirement age — the key to any reform of the system.

Here’s my idea: Index the retirement age to life expectancy. In effect, say that “we will assure you an average of 20 years of paid retirement — more if you live longer, less if you don’t.”

But as you live longer and remain healthy longer and aging is postponed, you can’t just expect a longer and longer paid retirement. Ultimately, the math of such an indexing will save a lot more money than a legislated three-year, one-time increase in the retirement age.

Since 1900, life expectancy has risen by about 45 years. So, by 2030, it will probably be in the 90s and the retirement age, under an indexing, would likely be in the mid 70s, saving enough money to preserve the system and allow for the experimentation with private investment.

Flat tax. From Stephen Moore, head of the Club for Growth, comes a wonderful idea. Moore suggests adopting the flat tax on a voluntary basis, i.e., allowing taxpayers to enumerate their deductions and pay a higher rate or to file a flat tax at a lower rate.

Even high-bracket taxpayers will probably opt for the short form and the flat tax, but those who covet their mortgage deductions et al. will be able to indulge themselves and their accountants until their hearts are content.

This move will disempower the lobbyists who will fight the flat tax, since it will not repeal any deductions but just make another way of paying taxes possible.

Everybody knows Bush would rather die than raise taxes, so people will trust him to make the package at least revenue-neutral.

And the Moore idea could remedy the political defects that undermined the flat tax when it was proposed in the ’90s.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.