Bush is the world champion of private accounts, and rightly so. They are the only hope for making Social Security solvent without imposing a crushing tax burden on America's most productive citizens. Bush hinted while campaigning for reform last year--with no help from his timorous Republican allies in Congress--that he'd accept a small tax hike. But even that would have to be accompanied by personal accounts. "If we do not have Republicans and Democrats at the table for entitlements, nothing is going to happen," Bush said. So nothing is.
Nor is anything meaningful likely to happen on energy. Democrats want energy independence without increasing domestic oil production, an impossibility for the foreseeable future. Bush relishes more domestic production.
On education, Democrats pay lip service to reform. But they're really reactionaries, beholden to the teachers' unions. And the unions loathe No Child Left Behind, the president's signature reform program, because it requires accountability on the part of teachers and local school officials. It may be gutted or fall by the wayside.
The person to watch on minimum wage and taxes and entitlements and trade is Paulson. He's been given an unusually long leash by Bush to negotiate with Democrats. Bush said he has "instructed" Paulson "to reach out to folks on the Hill to see if we can't at least get a dialogue started . . . [on] the unfunded liabilities inherent in these entitlement programs."
There's a wrinkle with Paulson. He isn't as tax-averse as Bush, White House officials, or most Republicans. He is believed to be receptive to a deficit-reduction deal, for instance, that would raise the top rate (now 35 percent) on individual income and/or the payroll tax cap, in return for spending restraint and entitlement reforms. But Paulson's job, under Bush's orders, is to make deals, and Bush will have to decide whether to ratify them. In his last years, Bush will be neither lame nor irrelevant.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.