complexity of the scheme, which has the effect of discouraging
seniors from signing up, is only the beginning of difficulties
it entails for the president and his party. It will further swell
the budget deficit without commensurate political benefits. On
the contrary, the drug plan may prove a severe liability for Republicans
facing an increasingly hazardous midterm election in November.
looks less like a bump in the road than a major pothole on Rove's
highway to permanent majority status for the Republican Party.
As Bush's principal political adviser, Rove has a brilliant strategic
mind and can take credit for crafting the 2000 and 2004 presidential
election victories. The drug plan was an audacious effort to co-opt
the votes of seniors, reflecting Rove's grand design of building
on the electoral majority by adding constituency groups. By failing
to win new supporters while alienating old ones, the drug plan
betrays a flaw in Rove's strategic overview and points to potentially
the winter of Republican discontent, even if it is not openly
conceded. GOP members of Congress live in terror of the Jack Abramoff
lobbying scandal touching them. Once House Republicans return
from their global junkets in about two weeks, they face increasing
pressure to elect a new majority leader to replace Tom DeLay.
The Bush Social Security reform concept lies strangled in its
crib, while his tax reform did not even get that far. In this
atmosphere, the consequences of passing the drug benefit two years
ago become unpleasantly clear.
Christmas of 2003, the White House and the House Republican leadership
forced the drug benefit down the throats of unhappy conservatives.
In a memorable pre-dawn session, resisting Republican House members
were threatened with dire consequences and offered rich rewards
as the roll call was held open for more than an hour to erase
a 12-vote deficit.
was to entice low-to-middle income seniors who vote heavily Democratic
and complain about the cost of prescription drugs. That political
maneuver was translated by bureaucrats and health-care technicians
into a government program so difficult to understand that someone
now receiving any prescription drug care would be inclined to
stick with the present program even if it seems inadequate. For
many whose existing insurance does not help pay drug bills, the
Bush program is only a disappointment.
Bush attempt to co-opt the opposition also failed. The "no
child left behind" education bill was passed in 2001 only
after considerable arm-twisting of conservatives, but it has not
produced political dividends. The president remains as unpopular
as ever inside the education establishment, where school administrators
complain about constant testing and paperwork required by the
is the watchword among Bush administration officials, particularly
White House aides. Consequently, George W. Bush in the course
of his working day is unlikely to hear a discouraging word.
presidential appointee, however, laid out for me the parameters
of Bush's predicament with three full years remaining of his presidency.
Bush is essentially a war president, leading the nation to fight
an unpopular war that promises no temporary victories much less
a final one, and at best offers the prospect of withdrawal from
Iraq with honor. He needs something to energize the nation in
his second term, but he has failed to do that with Social Security
reform and has not even tried with tax reform. There is no clear
sign the president appreciates the size of his problem.
begin his sixth year in office, Medicare drug benefits come into
play, a major new entitlement that offends Bush's friends and
does not placate his foes. There is not much at this point that
can be done about it, except to try to convince seniors and conservatives
that the program is really not that bad.