For the foreseeable future the War on Terrorism gives the Republicans a big issue advantage over the Democrats. But national security concerns will not dominate the national consciousness in perpetuity. Eventually public attention will shift to other issues, possibly ones that favor the Democrats. Democrats have already indicated what they hope those issues will be: health care and the environment.
In early November, Al Gore stated that he was in favor of a single-payer (read “government-run”) health care system in the United States. In a recent interview on C-Span, Senator Jon Corzine echoed the health-care issue. On the environment, the Democratic organ known as the New York Times held out scant hope last week that the “administration’s determined efforts to satisfy its corporate allies at the expense of the environment show [any] signs of abating.” If one includes Paul Krugman’s histrionics, the Times op-ed page last week ran three pieces on the environment that bashed Bush and the GOP on everything from Clean Air, to global warming, to their supposed shoddy treatment of EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.
The Democratic strategy appears to be to play up the health-care and environment issues while waiting for the War on Terrorism to subside. They could find a worse plan. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in late September, respondents trusted Democrats over Republicans on the health-care issue by 50-35%. On the environment it was even worse, 55-31%.
The Bush administration should plan its counterattack now. In fact, if Bush and the Republicans play their cards right, they could “steal” the health-care and environment issues from the Democrats, and in the process enact some good policy. Here are some ideas:
On health care, Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Mark McClellan recently outlined the Bush administration’s plan for tax-credits for the uninsured. While that’s a good start, it doesn’t go far enough to address the real problem with health care, rising costs. A large source of the problem, of course, is that in the United States a “third-party payer,” i.e. an insurance company, pays for medical services. Since the consumer never pays directly, there is no incentive for the consumer to hold down costs.
To remedy this, the Bush administration should publicize an IRS ruling from last June which gave the go-ahead for “Health Reimbursement Arrangements.” Under these arrangements, employers can set up what is in effect a medical savings account for their employees and still have the tax break which applies to the current system. According to Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, “Employers can buy a high-deductible insurance policy and use some of the premium savings to set up individual accounts for their employees. The employees can draw on the accounts for out-of-pocket health expenses. If they don’t draw it down all the way, the remainder can be rolled over into the next year — and carried with the employee after he leaves his job….So the arrangement creates an incentive to economize.”
The administration should couple a promotion of Health Reimbursement Arrangements with a plan to expand the tax credit for them. Bush could promote this as more choice and autonomy for the consumer. Such a pitch would appeal to many workers who are angry at their insurance companies.
To tackle the environment issue, Bush should consider hiring a better publicist. While the mainstream press has largely portrayed Bush as the friend of corporate polluters — witness the howling over the recent decision to relax Clean Air standards at some power plants — his actual record on the environment is rather strong. In a piece for the Joint Center for Regulatory Studies earlier this year, Greg Easterbrook noted that the Bush administration has instituted stricter standards for diesel fuel, and has proposed streamlining the Clean Air Act to compel power plants to drastically cut emissions. Part of the problem is that the administration has made no concerted effort to highlight these decisions. It should do so.
Greg Easterbrook also has an interesting proposal for global warming. In an article for the New Republic last year, Easterbrook suggested focusing global-warming efforts away from carbon dioxide and toward methane and industrial soot. This would have considerable advantages. It would be less economically costly. While reducing carbon dioxide requires reducing industrial output, reducing methane and industrial soot would only require things like fixing natural gas pipeline leaks and helping Third World countries improve their factories and power plants. It would have also a more immediate impact on global warming and pollution than reducing carbon dioxide. Bush should give a major policy speech adopting this approach. In doing so, he could shift the debate on global warming and knock the Democrats, not to mention his environmental critics, for a loop.
National security concerns will not boost Republican fortunes forever. Eventually the political landscape will shift, possibly in ways that favor Democrats’ issues. The Democrats have already shown what they think those issues are. If Republicans want to maintain their majority status for years to come, now is the time to co-opt them. Are you listening, Karl Rove?
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