A case of the emperor's new Democratic clothes

By Ronald Brownstein

Financial Times

Published: January 31 2005

The last Democratic president to hold views roughly similar to those of George W. Bush was Grover Cleveland, in the late 19th century. Cleveland embodied the resistance to activist government that dominated the Democratic party through its first century and fuels the Republicans today.

But the unlamented Cleveland is not one of the predecessors Mr Bush and his allies are enlisting to sell their initiatives. Instead, they are trying to link the president's agenda with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. In each case, to put it mildly, the connection is a stretch.

Mr Bush's allies have described his recent inaugural address as the most idealistic statement of America's commitment to expanding liberty since Wilson's declaration in 1917 that "The world must be made safe for democracy."

Up to a point, the analogy holds. Like Mr Bush, Wilson believed that the spread of democracy would make America more secure. And Wilson, like Mr Bush, considered US influence crucial in encouraging that spread.

But the differences dwarf the similarities. Wilson wanted the US to help organise the world into a League of Nations that would confront threats as "a community of power". In both Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Bush has demonstrated he is more comfortable working (virtually) alone than accepting restrictions on America's freedom of action.

Just as importantly, Wilson believed that each generation of Americans had to bear the burden of world leadership. He insisted that, as much as possible, the costs of the war should be "sustained by the present generation, by well-conceived taxation" rather than burdening future generations with "the very serious hardships and evils" likely to arise from more debt.

By contrast, Mr Bush is billing future generations for the war on terror through an increased national debt, largely because he is the first president to cut taxes significantly during wartime. His administration projects that the federal deficit will reach another recordthis year, adding an expected $427bn to the debt future taxpayers must pay. That is hardly Wilsonian.

The comparison with Roosevelt is just as strained. A conservative group called Progress for America has run television advertisements arguing that Mr Bush, in his drive to restructure Social Security, is displaying the same "courage and leadership" that Roosevelt did in creating the programme during the Great Depression.

No one doubts that Mr Bush is willing to take political risks. But he is taking those risks on behalf of an agenda that inverts Roosevelt's vision of how to increase economic security for ordinary Americans.

With ideas such as personal investment and health savings accounts, Mr Bush is proposing policies that would shift more of the risk for funding retirement and healthcare from large collective institutions (such as Social Security or group health insurance) to individuals, in the name of expanding ownership and choice. Roosevelt's goal was precisely the opposite: to create public programmes that shifted the risk for life's challenges from individuals to society overall.

Mr Bush's frequent invocation of Mr Clinton on Social Security is even more surprising, given conservative hostility to the former president.

Mr Bush is right that his immediate predecessor was more likely than Democratic leaders today to describe Social Security's long-term financing imbalance as a "crisis". But Mr Clinton's response to that challenge is close to Mr Bush's only in the sense that two trucks are close when they collide.

Mr Clinton had a two-step answer. First, he wanted to reduce government interest costs by paying down the national debt with the federal surplus of the late 1990s. Then he would have used the annual savings to help fund Social Security. Mr Bush instead used the surplus for massive tax cuts that have contributed to mounting federal debts and rising interest costs.

Mr Clinton also wanted to create tax-subsidised personal investment accounts on top of Social Security; Mr Bush wants to carve out personal accounts from Social Security by diverting part of the payroll tax that now funds benefits for retirees. One would add to Social Security; the other would take from it.

At home and abroad, Mr Bush's agenda is decisive and ambitious. But it is not a Democratic agenda. Pretending it is serves no one.

The writer is a Los Angeles Times columnist. His work appears here by special arrangement with that newspaper