Bush political capital will be taxed

President Bush has spent a lot of time trumpeting his "political capital" lately, and with good reason - this Thanksgiving offered the president a lot of reasons to be thankful.

He recently won the presidency by winning more votes than any other candidate in the history of the United States. Cabinet resignations have allowed him to consolidate power - as if he ever had concerns - by stacking his brain trust with more loyalists. He is counting down the days until he gets a House and, more important, a Senate filled with more agreeable voices.

And come spring, he isn't even going to have to leave town to watch a baseball game anymore. The city's new team, the Nationals, will be playing less than four miles from his home. Their caps, by the way, sport a cursive "W" on a red background no less. To be fair to those on the other side of the cultural divide, the team will also reportedly wear blue caps - but only for road games.

But the smiles around 1600 Pennsylvania may not be around long - 2005 is potentially an extremely turbulent year for the White House.

In Iraq, the debate over when to hold elections is just the beginning of bigger issues. The administration has pushed to hold elections by Jan. 30 so that Iraq is ruled by a properly elected government as soon as possible, and presumably because it would speed up the return home of US troops. But postponement plans of the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, who worry that the country's instability will hurt them on Election Day, should raise eyebrows. With or without the US, things are not well in Iraq.

The Kurds in particular are not completely sold on the idea of a democratic Iraq, at least not one that they are a part of. Even if the election problems are resolved, whoever is in charge of the new Iraq will face a shaky start, particularly if a government with ties to Iran gains power. The Kurds may ultimately decide to declare independence or take steps in that direction. If they do, the anger of neighboring nations - not to mention the ensuing discord in Iraq - will only make the region more explosive.

On the domestic front, despite the friendly faces, Capitol Hill is starting to look rife with shenanigans and friction. Beyond the issues with the intelligence reform bill, the stalling of which has not been adequately explained - was it the Pentagon or the House Republicans or both? - there is the question of how a provision that would have allowed two GOP chairmen to look at individuals' tax returns found its way into the House appropriations bill. On top of that there are continuing ethics problems with majority leader Tom DeLay. Last month, when Mr. DeLay faced the possibility of losing his leadership post if he were indicted, the House Republicans simply changed the rules so that if he is indicted he won't be affected.

Together, these items suggest that congressional Republicans, particularly in the House, are beginning to show signs of the hubris that comes when one party has been in the majority too long. It's the kind of hubris that can foster unwillingness to follow and scandals that can derail an agenda.

And then there's Mr. Bush's agenda itself. Simply put, the president's domestic plans don't look feasible. It is not at all clear how he can halve the deficit while making the tax cuts of his first term permanent and "reforming" Social Security. The president's plan, which would allow Americans to invest some of the money they put into Social Security, would require hundreds of billions of dollars that aren't available.

Under the current system, money paid into the program today is used to pay people already drawing Social Security checks. If the administration wants to allow workers to have personal investment accounts, it must first find a way to keep giving benefits to those already receiving them.

How does the president propose to do that? Reports center on a single word: borrow. In other words, increase deficits. But the public appetite for further increasing the federal debt is weak. In several polls, people have said that they favor shrinking deficits over a host of other options, including tax cuts. The president may try to spin around this problem by placing the Social Security changes on a separate ledger, but such moves will only delay the inevitable. No matter what you call them, when deficits get too big, they drain the economy.

The president should treasure these moments; they may not be around long. Problems overseas, on the Hill, and in his own agenda aren't likely to go away soon. They're things that burn quickly through treasured "political capital."

Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.

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