Back to Basics
WASHINGTON -- When
President Bush addressed the nation Tuesday night, he had two
related problems -- one political, the other conceptual. His political
problem is that he has negligible support among Democrats and
his support among independents has fallen sharply, so he must
continue to govern with narrow victories secured by the cohesion
of his conservative base. His conceptual problem is that although
election results indicate that this is a somewhat conservative
era, it is more rhetorically than operationally conservative.
There is a broad
consensus that government has a duty to assuage two perennial
fears and a modern anxiety. The two fears are illness and old
age -- particularly illness in old age. The modern anxiety is
that educational deficits will leave rising generations of Americans
ill-equipped to compete in a world in which few social structures
can temper the winds of competition.
are uninterested in the question of which level of government
in our federal system addresses those fears and that anxiety.
Five decades ago, the new interstate highway system was officially
named the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.
And when, also in the 1950s, the Soviet Union's Sputnik produced
American anxiety about educational standards, the federal government
produced the National Defense Education Act. Note the recurring
word: ``defense.'' That was partly a verbal tic of the time --
a Cold War reflex to impart momentum to any proposal by presenting
it as integral to national security. But it also represented a
vestigial impulse to connect any federal action with a clear --
meaning constitutionally enumerated -- federal power.
That impulse is gone
in a nation in which it seems quaint to suggest that some things
are beyond the federal government's proper purview. Today's default
position is: Washington should do it.
So the president
must fashion policies that are responsive to this national consensus
but will not cause fissures in his conservative base. Hence health
savings accounts. The president proposes to allow people to buy,
with pre-tax dollars, high-deductible health insurance policies
outside of work. They can then pay for out-of-pocket expenses
with tax-free dollars in their accounts.
HSAs are a distilled
essence of the conservative agenda of giving individuals incentives
to augment their own security, thereby reducing the demand for,
and hence the supply of, government. HSAs offend Democrats who
understand the potential threat HSAs pose to the ``progressive''
agenda of maximizing equality, understood as shared dependence
on a government-defined ethic of common provision.
HSAs, a partially
redeeming feature of the 2003 legislation that established the
Medicare prescription drug entitlement, have already found a constituency
of more than 3 million people, about of a third of whom were previously
uninsured. And Wal-Mart and GM are among the large employers who
this year will begin facilitating employee participation in HSAs,
most of which are comprehensive, covering the costs of visits
to doctors or emergency rooms, prescription drugs, lab tests and
There is evidence
that HSAs reduce health care costs by making patients more judicious
in their use of physician visits, and inpatient and lab services.
In a study of one HSA plan, 50 percent of the participants had
some funds left over at the end of the year to roll over into
the next year's account.
Regarding the war,
although the president asked that our disagreements be conducted
at a lower decibel level, he was, if anything, even more Manichean
than usual. There are, he intimated, just two points of view.
One is held by those who are as optimistic as he is about the
march of freedom and democracy. And then there are those who favor
``retreat'' and ``isolationism,'' words as negatively charged
as any in foreign policy discourse.
The president's headline-grabbing
assertion that America is ``addicted'' to oil is wonderfully useless.
If it means only -- and what else can it mean? -- that for the
foreseeable future we will urgently need a lot of oil, it is banal.
The amusingly discordant word ``addicted'' couched censoriousness
-- the president as national scold: our consumption of oil is
somehow irresponsible -- in the vocabulary of addiction, which
is the therapeutic language of Oprah Nation, where no one is responsible
for anything bad because bad behavior is medicalized.
Not to worry. The
president says that by 2025 America will ``replace'' -- a certain
ambiguity there -- ``more than 75 percent of our oil imports from
the Middle East.'' Replace with what? Other oil? Never mind. Such
recurring goals, located safely over the horizon, resemble Soviet
agricultural quotas, except that no one will be shot when they
are not met.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group