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Bush will overreach at his peril

PRESIDENTS get into trouble in their second terms, especially when they interpret reelection as a huge mandate. The details differ, but most of them involve overreaching.

Franklin Roosevelt was overwhelmingly reelected in 1936, and almost immediately overreached in his scheme to pack the Supreme Court. Ronald Reagan won reelection by a landslide in 1984, but found that his tax cuts were creating serious deficit problems, bogged down in the Iran-Contra scandal, and ended losing the Senate in 1986. And Bill Clinton, reelected in 1996, imagined that he could treat the Oval Office as a boudoir.

What of Bush? His bungling of the nomination of Bernard Kerik to head the Homeland Security Department -- there was much more than a nanny scandal that would have led to a messy confirmation battle -- is pure second-term hubris. And there is a lot more to come.

In the wake of John Kerry's defeat -- and I mean wake in both senses -- Democrats have been going through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grieving, including denial, anger, and depression. They particularly need to avoid her final stage -- acceptance. For Bush is strikingly vulnerable.

Consider his big plans for 2005: Social Security privatization, tax "simplification," making tax cuts permanent, and a forward strategy for US power in the Middle East and the world.

Every one of these is shaky. But whether Bush will be stopped in his tracks this time depends on the capacity of the press and the public to do something they didn't do well enough in Bush's first term -- to focus on the details.

Had there been more attention to details, Congress would not have consented to a blank check for an Iraq war. It would not have passed a prescription drug bill, over the objections of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson as we recently learned, that explicitly prohibits Medicare from negotiating bulk discounts with drug companies. It would not have passed such budget-busting tax cuts.

Once the Democrats get over their grief and depression and recover their anger, their job is to be a relentless truth squad. And as the details of Bush's proposals get more scrutiny, he won't get the sort of free pass that he received in his first term. For instance:

Social Security. The more the press scrutinizes Bush's privatization scheme, the worse it looks. It's beginning to penetrate public opinion that the plan would reduce the basic benefit by about 50 percent for the next generation and that private accounts would not make up the difference for most retirees. Worse, the plan adds another $1 trillion to $2 trillion to the national debt. Bush is already drawing fire from Republican legislators who don't want to face voters in two years and explain why they supported this.

Tax "simplification." Every single version of Bush's so-called simplification plan is really a move to give further shelter to the upper brackets and shift taxation onto consumption. One version would require a sales tax with rates upward of 30 percent. This prospect helped to defeat the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado, beer magnate Pete Coors, and could brew trouble for other Republicans as details become known.

Dollar dependency. Many Republicans as well as Democrats (and most economists) are beginning to seriously worry that our entire economy is now dependent on the willingness of the central banks of Japan and China to keep buying our bonds. The need for foreign bond purchases is directly related to Bush's tax cuts and immense deficits, and their drain on US capital markets.

Pitiful giant. The bizarre financial reliance on China is only one of several examples of how Bush has squandered America's role as sole surviving superpower. All of our effective combat forces (and some aging reservists) are bogged down in Iraq. Bush has designs on Iran, but lacks means to carry them out. The plan to have Iraq be the leading edge of a democracy movement in the Mideast has utterly backfired. Meanwhile, there is a crisis of preparedness as reservists and guardsmen are suing the government for calling them to active duty long after they've completed their obligations.

What all these woes have in common is that they make Republicans very nervous. Senator John McCain's blunt declaration of no-confidence in Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is a harbinger of things to come.

Though Bush has nominal majorities in both houses, he cannot count on Republican legislators to slavishly support his every move. The more he overreaches, the more Republican opposition he will court.

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

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