What George Mason Experts Are Saying about…Bush’s Second Term, Domestic Policies

Posted: December 14, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of occasional articles on what George Mason experts have to say about a current topic. In this article, experts address issues in President George W. Bush’s second term: Social Security reform, tax simplification, the influence of the religious right, and gender politics. Tomorrow, experts will address the war in Iraq and Middle East and foreign policies. These are personal opinions and do not reflect an endorsement by George Mason University.

Consensus Is Lacking on Reforms to Social Security System

While there is a consensus that at some point in the future we will need to adjust or even radically reform the Social Security system, there is little or no consensus on what adjustments or reforms are necessary, according to Russell Roberts, professor in the Department of Economics and the J. Fish and Lillian F. Smith Distinguished Scholar at the Mercatus Center.

“One barrier to that consensus, which also creates a political opportunity, is the complexity of the system and how remarkably uninformed the average citizen is about how the system works,” he says. “As a result, those who favor adjustment over radical reform or radical reform over adjustment are prone to overly dramatic and inaccurate descriptions of the degree of crisis or the possibilities for alternatives.”

Roberts points out that those who favor radical reform tend to overstate the financial benefits of privatization, while those who favor adjustments within the current system tend to overstate the dangers of privatization and the ease of making adjustments within the current system.

“So, as a general rule, both sides of the debate are wrong,” he says. “Social Security can be fixed with some adjustments within the current system, and the fears about privatization are greatly exaggerated. The real reason to favor or oppose privatization is philosophical not financial. Who should be responsible for my retirement? Should it be me or the government? This is where the real political battle will be waged. There will be lots of sound and fury about rates of return and trust funds and tax rates and savings rates. But ultimately, the philosophical issue will come into play.”

What Will Bush Do with His Mandate?

George Bush has a solid mandate, according to Jeremy Mayer, assistant professor in the School of Public Policy. “The American system is almost designed to make the acquisition of a mandate very difficult for a president, and Bush did it, given his popular vote majority, the gains of his party in Congress, and the inclusion of vague policy proposals in his stump speech,” he says.

What will Bush do with that mandate in the second term? So far, Mayer says, two issues stand out on the domestic front: Social Security privatization and tax simplification. “With Social Security, the first move will be cosmetic; Republicans will start to call privatization ‘personalization,’ which polls much better,” he says.

In addition, Mayer thinks tax simplification should also move forward and has the potential to be very popular with the public. “While almost every president promises tax simplification, it looks like Bush is more serious than most,” he says.

Will the Religious Right Be Able to Capitalize?

While exit poll data show that President Bush did especially well among voters who said moral values were their most important issue in the campaign, the question remains whether religious conservatives will be able to cash in their earnings in a second Bush term, according to Mark Rozell, professor in the School of Public Policy and the author of numerous works on the religious right.

“Will the president use ‘political capital’ to push the social issues agenda or will he govern more from the center, thus once again frustrating the aspirations of religious conservatives who feel that they have waited years for real progress on their agenda?” Rozell asks. “Early indications suggest that Bush is going to emphasize his economic and foreign policy agendas, and social issues are not likely to dominate his second term.”

Rozell adds, however, that with a few Supreme Court openings, all of that could change. “Thus, for social conservatives, it becomes a question of whether to continue to wait patiently for their day, or to push now for more active policy changes. While the GOP coalition seems strong right now, there is the potential for a splintering of the majority if social conservatives push their issues aggressively to the forefront of the Bush second term.”

Exit Polls Show Strong Divergences within the Women’s Vote

While President Bush fared better among female voters in the 2004 election than the 2000 election, closing the gender gap to seven points, one of the most interesting results of the exit polls showed that there were strong divergences within the women’s vote, says Colleen Shogan, assistant professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs.

She explains that while white women voted for Bush (55 percent to 44 percent), women of color voted strongly for Kerry (75 percent to 24 percent). Further, working women supported Kerry (51 percent to 48 percent), while nonworking women went for Bush (53 percent to 46 percent). “Analyzing women as a cohesive electoral demographic may be misguided and also might explain Bush’s policy choices on women’s issues,” she says.

“Bush’s female constituency is a particular subset of the female population—white married women with children, who may not work outside the home. The policy preferences of these individuals are very different from women exhibiting other demographic characteristics.”

Shogan also believes that although much attention is being given to the possible appointments of new Supreme Court justices and their effect upon Roe v. Wade, policies affecting women are more likely to be much less publicized during Bush’s second term. “For example, during Bush’s first term, most of the attention focused on the passage of the partial birth abortion ban. But the Federal Drug Administration’s decision to deny over-the-counter sales of emergency contraception, despite the recommendation of two scientific panels, most likely affected a larger number of American women.”

Moreover, she says, a 2002 Bush budget proposal, which was eventually removed from the final version of the bill, drastically reduced contraceptive options for federal workers, a policy change that might have had an impact on 1.2 million female employees.

Apart from reproductive issues, Shogan points out, the Bush administration has also been accused of not awarding enough federal contracts to women-owned small businesses. “Instead, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce has been stymied by the Small Business Administration, which contends that fulfilling veteran procurement quotas are the immediate priority of the administration. In other words, when it comes to gender politics in the United States, the most relevant stories are often those that quietly affect women under the radar screen.” Shogan expects more policy developments of this nature during Bush’s second term.

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