Remember The Tax Cuts?

President Bush holds a discussion on Social Security, Thursday, June 23, 2005, at the Montgomery Blair High School, in Silver Spring, Md.
This column was written by William Kristol.
Tax cuts -- especially the supply-side tax cuts of May 2003 -- were the controversial center of the Bush administration's first-term economic policy. Most Democrats opposed most of the tax rate reductions. John Kerry promised to repeal many of them if elected president. The president, and Republicans running for the Senate and House, promised to make them permanent. (For reasons having to do with artificial out-year budget calculations, most of the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire over the next few years.)

Bush won and Kerry lost. Republicans increased their margins in Congress. So a bill to make the tax cuts permanent should be moving through Congress as we speak, no? No. The president occasionally refers to his wish that this be done, but tax-cutting has taken a back seat -- way at the back of the bus -- to his top priority for the second term, Social Security reform.

But Social Security reform is going nowhere. Whatever the merits of the president's ideas, they're not going to become law this year or next. There's no dishonor in trying and failing to enact a major public policy reform. But it's going to be time, soon, to throw in the towel. A sense of dignity and propriety argue against too sudden an abandonment of this effort, so we'll spend a couple of months reading about good-faith efforts at jump-starting reform. But surely Social Security reform will be allowed to die with dignity by, say, Labor Day -- perhaps little noticed in the excitement of a Supreme Court fight. The president can take credit for laying the foundation for future efforts, and the caravan can move on.

There has, of course, been a political cost to the emphasis on Social Security reform. Part of it is an opportunity cost. If the president talks about Social Security, he doesn't talk about tax cuts. But it's a little worse than that. The message the president has been delivering on Social Security is one of doom and gloom -- the horrible burdens overhanging us in the future if we don't start eating our spinach with benefit cuts, and squirreling away our nuts in private accounts. As a political drumbeat, this message has drowned out any talk of economic opportunity and optimism. In fact, in recent attempts to sell Social Security reform, the president with all his talk of "economic security" has almost begun sounding like our statist friends across the Atlantic, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder.