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In Speech, Bush to Stress 'Ownership'

President will seek to draw distinctions with Kerry on healthcare and retirement, aides say.

August 30, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK CITY — President Bush plans to stress themes of "ownership" and government reform in his acceptance speech Thursday, positioning himself to reprise one of his most effective arguments against Democrat Al Gore in the 2000 campaign.

Without offering many specifics, Bush is likely to pledge to restructure Social Security, the tax code and the healthcare system with the common goal of shifting more control and ownership away from government toward individuals, according to sources familiar with the speech's preparation.

"The big label will be reform -- Social Security reform, reform of our institutions of government, reform of healthcare, and the concept of ownership," said one senior GOP strategist who asked not to be named.

Bush strategists believe this agenda will allow them to frame the campaign's domestic debates as a choice between the president's push to empower individuals and proposals by Sen. John F. Kerry that they will portray as a return to big government.

Even some Democrats agree that in the 2000 campaign's final stages, Bush scored points against Gore by hammering at that same argument, declaring, "He trusts the government, I trust the people."

Democrats acknowledge that the themes of choice, ownership and individual control that Bush is expected to stress could have long-term appeal in a society where more Americans own homes and businesses and participate in the stock market. But Democrats also believe the president will have difficulty selling his agenda when so many Americans are feeling insecure about their jobs, the costs of healthcare and the security of their pensions following drops in stock prices and corporate scandals.

"There may be a moment for [Bush's] argument, but not after three years of decline," said Democratic strategist Stanley B. Greenberg, Gore's pollster in 2000.

Much of Bush's Thursday speech will make "the case for continuity in the war on terror," and argue that he has made "big improvements on Medicare, education and tax cuts" at home, said the strategist familiar with its drafting.

But the strategist said the speech also would look ahead and was intended to cement an impression that Bush would pursue "big ideas" in a second term.

It remains unclear how much of the domestic agenda Bush mentions in his speech will truly be new. Several of the ideas he's likely to spotlight are measures he's endorsed throughout his presidency. Among them:

* Restructuring Social Security to allow workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in the stock market;

* Providing tax credits to help uninsured workers and families buy health insurance;

* Providing subsidies to help lower-income families buy a home;

* Creating new tax-free accounts that individuals could use to save for retirement or buying a first home.

One new area of emphasis for Bush is likely to be a pledge to pursue tax-code reform meant to simplify and streamline the system. Bush has hinted at interest in some kind of national sales tax, and many Republicans have long called for moving away from the progressive income tax toward a flatter tax system that would reduce the number of rate brackets while eliminating many existing deductions.

But insiders say the president is unlikely to embrace a specific plan -- either Thursday or through the campaign -- focusing rather on pledging to work across party lines for reform based on principles such as simplicity.

Bush advisors said the president wanted to maintain a balance between revealing enough of an agenda to reassure voters that he hadn't run out of ideas for a second term, while avoiding specifics that could provide a tempting target for Kerry and his Democratic presidential campaign.

Yet Bush's emphasis on reform and an "ownership society" could frame a clear contrast with Kerry's priorities.

These differences may never command center stage in a campaign focused on terrorism and jobs. But the two men are presenting choices that point toward radically different conceptions of how social insurance should operate not only for the poor, but all families.

In recent speeches, Bush has argued that a key to reducing economic insecurity is to allow average families to own their health insurance and retirement plans, rather than relying on employers or government programs to provide them.

With workers more likely to change jobs or careers than those of earlier generations, "one way to bring stability and security into a person's life is to encourage ownership," Bush has said.

But Kerry argues that the ideas Bush promotes as increasing ownership are really intended to shift the risks of retirement and healthcare from government and employers toward individuals. Kerry and other critics maintain that individuals can achieve greater economic security by remaining within collective programs meant to spread risk over a large pool of participants, such as employer-provided healthcare, Social Security and Medicare.

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