That Old Time Religion -- a Poem by Maurice Manning
- That Old Time Religion:
A Note to J. M.
By Maurice Manning
The sisters came to see me, Jack,
all nine of them, last night; I could hear
the patter of their feet around
my bed: a flock of barefoot maids,
the brood of a major god, good Lord!
I breathed the smell of their lovely bodies
and knew they�d come from heaven, and brought
along their bucket and dipper gourd.
I wasn�t looking for a bath,
but they bathed me anyway, a stern
admonishing submersion it was,
as I recall, though I slept right through
the whole delight � the night was deep
and I was deeply in it. When
I woke, I wasn�t whiskey-addled,
as scoffers might suspect, but pearled
with dew; my lips had curled into
a shepherd�s crook, a look half-glad,
half-stunned at being washed so well.
I was released and governed both
at once, Old Swain, but fancy this:
inside my mouth I swear I held
an older tongue. Will it pronounce
the necessary word? Ha ha,
we�ll see in several hundred years.
It�s clear to me I can�t complain
about these daughters or their water,
and while the virtue of their visit
is yet unknown, I wanted you
to know, by golly, they were here.
- Selling The Ownership Society
Bush & Co. are pitching self-sufficiency, urging voters to take control of
health-care and Social Security decisions
Like the embattled hero of one of those old Ronald Reagan movies, George W.
Bush is a lonely man with a tough road ahead. Facing a challenge from
dissolving public support for the troubled U.S. occupation of Iraq and
hobbled by an economy that is struggling to create jobs, the President will
have to fight to convince voters that he deserves another term in the White
That battle begins in earnest on Sept. 2 at the Republican Convention in New
York City, when Bush will focus attention on his central role in the war on
terrorism. Arguing that Iraq is just one phase of a multifront struggle, he
will strive to strengthen support for his proactive foreign policy. But Bush
is also a realist. He knows that, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot
make Election 2004 revolve solely around terrorism and national security.
Even if he wins the debate with Democrat John Kerry over who is seen as
stronger and more steadfast, Bush could still come out on the short end Nov.
2 if people think he's not up to the task of managing the economy.
Here, the polls offer little encouragement. In an Aug. 5-10 survey by the
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 52% of Americans disapproved
of Bush's handling of the economy, vs. 42% who approved. Some two-thirds
rated an economy that boasts solid growth, benign inflation, and low
unemployment as only "fair" or "poor." Why? Scarce jobs, soft wages, and the
jolt of higher health and energy costs have created a disconnect between
glowing macro indicators and kitchen-table reality.
Bush needs a shield from Kerry's charges that he's out of touch with the
economic pressures buffeting the middle class. In New York, the President
will take the wraps off a second-term domestic agenda built around the idea
of an "Ownership Society" in which Americans would be empowered to save and
invest more, playing a larger role in managing their own health care and
retirement finances. By promising to fight for private accounts in Social
Security and a simpler and more investor-friendly tax code, Bush will return
to the big reform themes that served him well in his 2000 campaign. Given
his track record for bold and surprising strokes, he may also use his
convention speech to hint at an even more ambitious second-term reform
agenda that would tilt the tax balance further away from investment and
SETTING UP A DEBATE
While hardly original, Bush's Ownership Society approach is worlds away from
the expanded government safety net that Kerry proposes to help strapped
workers. The Democrat is making inroads with swing voters by promoting
near-universal health coverage, tuition aid, and tax credits for new jobs.
Whatever else it does, Bush's throwing down the gauntlet will open one of
the more striking debates of the campaign. That's because there's a
philosophical gulf between liberals' evocations of social equity and the
comfort of a government helping hand vs. conservatives' paeans to
individualism and entrepreneurship. As he barnstorms the country, Bush
promotes the virtues of ownership with near-religious fervor, seizing upon
one economic number in particular that shines from a so-so record: the
torrid pace of home buying. "If you own something, you have a vital stake in
the future," the President said in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 18.
What's under the ownership umbrella? There's a renewed call, to be voiced in
Bush's convention speech, for an aggressive trade-promotion agenda and for
private Social Security accounts. The President also will talk up a health
system built on individual -- rather than employer-provided -- insurance.
Bush is saving his biggest ownership flourish for last, however. All year
his economists have debated whether the White House can commit to broad
reform of the tax code as a second-term goal. Bush has now signed on and
will promote the ideas of "pro-growth" reform in his address without
dwelling too much on specifics. Says former Council of Economic Advisers
Chairman R. Glenn Hubbard, a key architect of Bush's first-term tax cuts:
"The President is a problem-solver. He's keenly interested in fixing the tax
code's complexity and anti-savings bias."
In New York, Bush is expected to embrace a major tax initiative, vowing
action on three fronts: He will fight to make existing tax cuts permanent;
push for new individual retirement accounts that protect family savings from
taxes; and direct the Treasury Dept. to outline changes that make the
revenue code "fairer and simpler." That will trigger a foot-stomping
celebration on the floor of Madison Square Garden, since GOP partisans
equate those words with "lower and less onerous" rates.
CALMING TAX WORRIES
But what is Bush's ultimate goal? The steps the President is taking to trim
marginal rates and exempt bigger and bigger chunks of investment income are
marching the tax code toward a long-time dream of mainstream GOP reformers
-- retaining the core of the basic income tax while gradually easing the tax
bite on savings and investment. Bush must tread cautiously, however, to
quell voters' fears that he aims to throw out the existing tax code and
replace it with a pure flat tax or national sales levy. To calm those
worries, he will insist that any changes keep both the home mortgage
deduction and the write-off for charitable giving.
Taken together, the Ownership Society themes resonate broadly, White House
officials contend. The slogan returns Bush to the "reformer with results"
rhetoric of his 2000 campaign. It permits the Texan to cast himself as a
modernizer running against a Big Government liberal, as individual investing
and exploding homeownership transform society. It fires up the GOP base with
appeals for low taxes and property rights. And by turning the Social
Security debate into a discussion of investor returns, Bush may lure young
voters who have abandoned him. "The idea is to control your affairs through
ownership, starting with homeownership and running to health care and
retirement," says Dan Bartlett, White House communications director. "The
question is: Do I trust myself more, or the government more?"
By appealing to an optimistic future, Bush hopes to take peoples' minds off
the economy's not-so-swell recent past. Business leaders, at least, seem in
a forgiving mood. Thomas A. James, CEO of St. Petersburg-based Raymond James
Financial Inc. (RJF ), says the President deserves "very good, not
outstanding" ratings for steering through the downturn. Yet he worries that
Bush's optimism may ring hollow in the Rust Belt. "I admire Bush for
sticking with his agenda," James says. "[But] it may not be enough." Adds
Robert E. Switz, CEO of ADC Telecommunications Inc. in Eden Prairie, Minn.:
"The guy stepped in after the bubble and overall did a solid job. His tax
reductions worked. I rate him a solid B." What keeps Bush from acing his
exams? In chorus, execs cite a $400 billion budget deficit that, war or no
war, most think is too big.
Not everyone is convinced that Bush's paeans to property are an answer to
future economic challenges. Liberals say that he envisions wrenching changes
in the social compact. The thrust of his policies, foes assert, would be to
place most of the tax burden on workers, not investors; to offload risk from
corporations to individuals; and to undermine a social insurance system
dating back to the New Deal. To critics, the Ownership Society is a reworked
version of Newt Gingrich's 1994 manifesto -- the Conservative Opportunity
Society on Botox.
The White House "has come up with a smart way to package principles that
have rattled around the Right for generations," says Alan Brinkley, a
Columbia University historian. But "millions of Americans can't afford to
'own' their retirement or health care, as Bush wants. They find the whole
Some right-wingers are also underwhelmed by the ownership chat. They
complain that Bush has shunned a flat tax, imposed steel quotas, pushed for
a new Medicare drug entitlement, and deviated from the conservative script
for the sake of political gain. The fancy labeling effort is "all retail
politics, no vision," charges supply-side economist Bruce Bartlett, a
flat-tax backer. "They said, 'Geez, we've got this hodgepodge of things,
we've got to sell them."'
Despite carping from the Left and Right, Bush is anxious to take his
ownership blueprint on the road. After Labor Day, he'll stump hard for his
agenda, trying to make the concept accessible to voters by stressing its
MORE GOLD IN THE GOLDEN YEARS.
Under pressure from opposition Democrats and a post-September 11 market dip,
Bush backed off his original pledge to create Social Security private
accounts. Under the plan, middle-aged and younger workers could divert a few
percentage points of their payroll taxes into 401(k)-like investment funds.
Bush argued that no matter how financial markets perform, over the long haul
this system will beat the 1.5% annual return that today's workers will get
from the system.
Still, he never abandoned the belief that workers get a raw deal from
traditional Social Security. So he'll dust off the notion on Sept. 2 without
providing many fresh details. Bush will, however, assure Americans over 55
that their benefits will not be cut and stress that new accounts will be
The biggest weak spot in Bush's plan is paying for the transition, which
economists say could cost at least $1 trillion. With a big budget deficit,
Bush has nothing in the bank for such massive changes -- which is why many
Republican pols think he will continue to be thwarted. In the meantime,
Democrats will surely revive their "senior scare" tactics, charging that
Bush is out to destroy the retirement system.
THE PATH LESS TAXING.
Bush is playing both defense and offense on taxes. He will demand that
Congress retain his previous rate reductions, insisting that low marginal
rates and reduced taxes on dividends and capital gains spur growth and
productivity. That's a challenge to Kerry. To help pay for his health-care
plan, Kerry wants to hike top rates from today's 35% back to the pre-Bush
39.6% and restore higher taxes on capital gains and dividends for
Taking the offensive, Bush will also call for new Retirement Savings
Accounts and Lifetime Savings Accounts, vehicles that let individuals stash
away $5,000 a year without ever paying tax on the earnings. These ideas,
while not new, are steps toward creeping reform, because they slash taxes on
savings and investment. The White House claims its super-savings plans will
boost growth. Critics counter that only the well-off can save enough to use
the new breaks. And if Bush keeps exempting more forms of income from
taxation, liberals fear he'll erode the revenue base just as Uncle Sam has
to fund the Baby Boomers' retirement.
Will Bush shatter the conventional wisdom and unveil a sweeping tax plan in
the Garden? He has stunned the pundits before, presenting two giant tax cuts
that took Washington's breath away.
But 2004 isn't 2000. Bush now is saddled with a giant deficit, is waist-deep
in Iraq, and has used up many of his chits with Congress. Advisers say the
President isn't really aiming to pull the tax system out by its roots.
Instead, he wants to find ways to reduce its bias against savings and
investment and make filing simpler.
The bottom line: Bush will charge up his party with general talk of reform
while avoiding controversial specifics -- and see how much money is in the
federal till following the election. That, and the prospects for
disengagement from Iraq, will determine how ambitious he can afford to be.
BUSHCARE. The Administration has no desire to match Kerry's call for a $650
billion plan to expand government and employer insurance coverage. But Bush
can't go into the fall empty-handed. So he is pushing health-care
"ownership," trying to move toward individual insurance rather than
employer-provided coverage -- all at a modest government price of less than
$100 billion. Republicans believe that individuals who buy their own
coverage will slash costs by spending their health dollars more wisely.
The Bush Rx: Workers who purchase their policies would receive a refundable
tax credit, up to $1,000, to help offset the cost of premiums. A second
proposal would offer a tax deduction to people who combine high-deductible
policies with new Health Savings Accounts. And to encourage small businesses
to cover workers, Bush would let firms join insurance pools that spread
risks and lower costs. The President will also try to limit his foe's
advantage on the health issue by tarring Kerrycare as pseudo-socialized
medicine. "We're siding with patients and docs, " says Bush campaign manager
Ken Mehlman. "Democrats are siding with elites that dictate to people."
PLATOONS OF COMPASSION.
Building on his 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which set national standards
for schools, Bush wants to expand reforms to higher grades and junior
colleges, stressing basic skills for the workforce of the future.
To help Americans keep up with a changing job market, he backs $3,000
personal reemployment accounts that can be spent on training and relocation.
These vouchers, plus new proposals for more flexible hours, are billed as
ways to give workers more control over their lives.
Does all of this add up to a compelling agenda? Republicans are convinced
that Bush is on to something big. "This is not the Democrats' 'Two
Americas,"' says GOP consultant David Carney. "It's a positive message that
resonates beyond well-to-do-suburbanites to people who aspire to the middle
class." As more Americans squirrel away savings, buy homes, and start
investing, Republicans sense a gathering demographic wave that could alter
politics in the GOP's favor.
Democrats belittle Bush's ownership agenda as warmed-over Hooverism. They
charge that, by pushing investors out on a financial high wire without a
net, Bush's policies expose millions of Americans to the risk of stock
busts, housing bubbles, and fleecing by financial sharpies. "These stale old
ideas will do virtually nothing to encourage ownership -- and could actually
hurt it," asserts Jason Furman, Kerry's top economic adviser.
Thus, in the election, two strains of the American character will collide:
risk-taking and pioneering vs. a government safety net protecting citizens
from the excesses of capitalism. "Americans are optiimistic and aspire to
ownership," says Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist: "But
pushing the Ownership Society is still risky, because it plays to future
aspirations without addressing people's current economic problems."
Over the long term, the ownership concept holds both power and promise given
that it reflects profound changes in the way Americans live. George Bush's
problem, though, is that he has a messy short term to traverse. As he tours
the country conjuring visions of prosperity, an unanswered question hangs in
the air: What if most Americans are too busy struggling to stay above water
to give much thought to owning a nice boat?
By Lee Walczak, Richard S. Dunham, and Mike McNamee, with Howard Gleckman
and Rich Miller, in Washington and bureau reports