The Magazine

The Six-Year
Presidential Itch

Even with good presidents, energy flags in the second term.

Feb 13, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 21 • By FRED BARNES
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Social Security. Bush has an overwhelming advantage here. Rather than push for reform, Reagan agreed in 1983 to a Social Security bailout that raised the ceiling on income subject to payroll taxation and boosted the age for full benefits to 67. Bush championed reform last year, calling for private investment accounts funded by Social Security taxes. He found few vocal allies in Congress, yet he pushed ahead anyway and failed. Still, Bush left an important marker. The public is now convinced reform must come or Social Security will go belly up. But reform may not occur until the post-Bush years.

Government and spending. In theory, Reagan and Bush would seem to disagree on the size of government and the level of spending. Reagan is thought of as a small government conservative who gutted government and slashed spending. Bush is viewed as the opposite: a strong government conservative who tries to use government for conservative ends. But their actual records are pretty similar. Reagan cut spending only in his first year. Bush has held down nondiscretionary spending, and his budget deficits are a smaller percentage of GDP. Still, Reagan was more in line with traditional conservatism. He vetoed spending bills. Bush hasn't.

Education. Theory and reality clashed on education for Reagan. He sought to eliminate the Education Department but wound up letting education spending rise significantly. Bush regards the department as permanent and works through it to impose standards and testing on schools, overriding local control. Education spending has doubled. Bush may be less of a conservative than Reagan on education, but he's more realistic.

Courts. With his Supreme Court picks, Reagan moved the court to the right, but only slightly. His first nominee, Sandra Day O'Connor, succeeded Potter Stewart, a tick to the left. Antonin Scalia, in effect, replaced Warren Burger, an ideological lurch to the right. Under Bush, the switch from Chief Justice William Rehnquist to John Roberts was a wash. But chances are the replacement of O'Connor by Sam Alito will jerk the court in a decidedly conservative direction. So Bush has already reached the Reagan level, and may be surpassing it, in transforming the judiciary. And further nominations are possible.

Medicare. Bush is no conservative on this one, having created a costly prescription drug entitlement when he could have opted for a program aiding only needy seniors to buy prescription drugs. Reagan was better, but not much. He won enactment in 1983 of what was by far the biggest expansion of Medicare since its inception.

Immigration. Bush is no conservative on immigration, but neither was Reagan. Bush favors new ways to allow immigrants to enter America legally so they aren't slipping illegally across the border. He is accused of favoring amnesty for illegal aliens. Reagan was accused of this, too. He signed the Simpson-Mazzoli bill in 1986. It permitted illegals who entered the country before 1982 to gain citizenship.

Following the president's State of the Union address last week, conservatives found fault with his emphasis on government-financed energy programs and an American Competitiveness Initiative, plus his failure to promote tax reform. His speech was conservative only on foreign policy and health care.

And it was no balm to conservatives when Bush joked and backslapped with Bono, the U2 singer and advocate of debt forgiveness and AIDS relief in Africa, at the prayer breakfast. Bono spoke first. When Bush followed, he said he was "trying to figure out what to say" about Bono. "Careful," Bono said in a stage whisper. The president had nothing but praise for the singer.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard and author of Rebel-in-Chief (Crown Forum).