In deciding who would make the best president, conservatives should elevate a few issues above the others. Here’s my issues-based checklist:
1. Winning the war on Terrorism: After September 11, President Bush found himself in much the same position as President Truman at the end of World War II. Each faced the daunting task of deciding what was needed to fight — and win — a “long war.”
In the long war against international Communism, much of what served us so well was created under Truman during the first five years of the Cold War: the Truman Doctrine of containment, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of mutual defense, the Marshall Plan of economic assistance to beleaguered postwar Europe, and the economic liberalization that resulted from the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Subsequent presidents embraced and improved upon these long-war instruments, which had tremendous effect throughout the next 40-plus years.
Since 9/11, Bush, too, redesigned and created institutions and policies: new ones. The Patriot Act; the Department of Homeland Security; a more aggressive approach to dealing with terrorists; updated surveillance laws; fresh standards for the special federal court overseeing foreign intelligence gathering — all were promulgated to help win the new “Long War.”
The difference between the Truman and Bush eras is that most of the tools the latter sought to deploy (almost) immediately fell victim to partisan political warfare. It has been a long time since partisan differences threatened to redirect the war strategy of a commander-in-chief. One must think back to the election of 1864 when the Democrats nominated failed Union General George McClellan to oppose President Lincoln on a platform calling for the immediate cessation of hostilities and a negotiated settlement of the war. Needless to say, much is at stake. And I haven’t even mentioned Iraq.
The terrorist threat is real. My Heritage colleague James Carafano has documented 19 attempted terrorist attacks against America and American interests, since September 11. In total, Carafano reports, 27 terrorists have either confessed or been convicted and another 45 are awaiting trial.
2. Confronting the coming fiscal crisis: On January 1, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling became the first baby boomer to turn 62. She opted to retire early and cashed the first Social Security check ever issued to a boomer. In three years she will lead the Boomer stampede to the most unsustainable entitlement program of them all: Medicare. Eventually 78 million boomers will retire — an unprecedented demographic shift that will see America’s Biggest Generation move (in the immortal words of former Sen. Phil Gramm) from “pulling” the wagon” to “sitting” on it.
The fiscal gap between the health and retirement benefits promised to boomers and the tax revenues anticipated to pay for them can only be measured in tens of trillions of dollars. That’s a huge problem. Reuters reported last week that Moody’s Investors Service said the United States’s “triple-A” government bond rating will be jeopardized if Medicare and Social Security are not reformed. “These two programs are the largest threats to the long-term financial health of the United States and to the government’s AAA rating,” a Moody’s spokesman said.
Conservatives should ask which candidates are willing to confront this looming catastrophe head-on. Are they willing to speak the politically unpopular truth that the big three entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — require a fundamental overhaul and that it will be impossible to deliver all of the promised benefits? Are they willing to acknowledge that neither the problem nor the answer is on the revenue side? Our current tax burden is already high and poised to grow to unprecedented levels, thanks to the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts and explosion of the Alternative Minimum Tax. The route to fiscal sanity lies in radical spending reform, not in insanely high taxes.
3. Making the case for pro-growth economic policies and smaller government: America needs a leader literate in the language of free markets, one who understands the wisdom of free enterprise. Today, too many lawmakers blink and accept more governmental intrusion into our lives rather than extol the virtues of individual initiative and responsibility. Families and individuals are best suited to make the most important decisions in their lives, not condescending government bureaucrats, activist judges, or bottom-line-obsessed employers.
Liberals are poised to extend nanny-state guarantees and subsidies well into the middle-class. Exhibit A: Efforts on Capitol Hill and in many states to provided subsidized health coverage to families earning over $80,000.
Efforts, too, are underway to hike taxes to unprecedented levels. Too many candidates speak casually of “paying for” one or another plank in their platforms by taxing the “rich.” But The Index of Economic Freedom shows U.S. workers and businesses already pay some of the highest tax rates in the world. The only direction to go on taxes is down, down, down.
A candidate whose instincts are correct on these three uber-issues, will usually please conservatives on most other issues — be it health reform, education policy, or international development.
– Michael Franc is vice president of government relations for the Heritage Foundation.