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Will voters focus on Bush details?

PRESIDENT BUSH'S major speeches are a combination of high-blown rhetoric, paltry particulars, and calculated cynicism. They need to be carefully scrutinized, both in terms of what they actually deliver and who their real audience is. Bush's reelection will hinge on whether voters pay attention to the rhetoric or the details. For instance, Bush's call to broaden the availability of health insurance and rein in costs falls apart on close inspection, just like his Medicare drug insurance legislation. Most people who can't afford good insurance don't get enough subsidy from Bush's proposal. A patchwork approach, built on tax credits and big out-of-pocket costs, doesn't solve the problem. It only enriches private insurers and drug companies -- the proposal's true audience.

Will the voters focus on the details? Bush, shrewdly and cynically, set the start date of his drug legislation for 2006. So nobody will have first-hand experience by November of just how bad the plan is.

In yesterday's State of the Union address, Bush also proposed to allow younger voters to partly shift from government-guaranteed Social Security to private investment accounts. This is part of his "ownership society" -- the vision of every American as a capitalist.

All of us want to accumulate nest eggs. The trouble is that life throws us curves. Unlike an investment account, Social Security pays a guaranteed monthly check as long as you live, no matter how bad your luck or timing. Individual accounts can hit downdrafts of bear markets, and people can be gulled by bad investment advice. The audience? Wall Street investment firms who manage individual accounts and naive younger voters pursuing easy riches. The more that people take the trouble to study this plan, the better Social Security looks. But will they take the trouble?

Or take Bush's proposed guest-worker program. It would create a permanent class of noncitizen workers. Bush assumes, heroically, that creation of this new category would reduce illegal immigration. But the number of slots is capped, and students of migration patterns have demonstrated that enlarged networks of immigrants attract still larger flows of extended family members and neighbors. Imagine what will happen to permanent legal residents making a too-low $7 or $8 an hour when there's a whole new workforce with limited rights willing to work for $5.

The stated goal is improving the lives of immigrants and relations with Mexico. But the actual target audience is corporate employers seeking low-wage, docile employees and Hispanic voters with undocumented relatives. In fact, every major Hispanic group opposes the plan. Bush is counting on individual voters not to read the fine print.

And why is the president promising America the moon at a time when deficits are already sky high? Although the American public loves grand plans, polls suggest that many Americans are skeptical of an expanded space program. But there's a narrower audience here: the aerospace industry and a few key counties around Cape Canaveral, which happens to be located in swing-state Florida.

Bush also wants to make his huge, upwardly tilted tax cuts permanent. However, when you add the local property tax hikes made necessary by cuts in federal aid, your net tax load is probably higher than in 2000. In the 1990s, President Clinton hired investment banker Robert Rubin, who explained that budget discipline was necessary to produce lower interest rates and economic recovery. Thus far, this logic has not caught up with President Bush. His deficits are far worse than Reagan's or those that Bill Clinton inherited. But for the moment, Wall Street is enjoying the tax breaks and the stock market boom, and interest rates are still low.A serious reckoning will come, but will it come by November? And will voters pay attention to benefits and risks? Will voters notice that smaller and fairer tax cuts would leave more money to pay for good health insurance? If ever there were an election where the details mattered and cynical slogans needed to be discounted, it is this one. In Iowa on Monday, something hopeful happened. The primary voters rejected two candidates who got into an unfortunate pattern of disparaging each other and rewarded two who talked more positively about the substance of issues.

Iowa is, of course, a small state, and the voters were mostly Democrats. But if this is truly the mood of the electorate -- a willingness to do the work of citizenship and pay attention to the real details -- it doesn't bode well for Bush.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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