This was not, however, the place to look for diversity of opinion. This was not the place to find a free-wheeling exchange of ideas on what the economy needs, and how to keep it moving forward.
Make no mistake, this was, like so many events choreographed by the Bush White House over the past four years, a presentation designed solely to reinforce the president's policies. There would be no surprises over these two days: Nobody standing up to complain about the record budget deficit, or about the fact that tax cuts have not led to anywhere near the levels of job creation the president had predicted in 2001 and 2003. None of the panel discussions would be about the weakening U.S. dollar, or the staggering trade deficit.
Instead, the titles of the panel discussions seemed to come right out of the president's re-election campaign literature. Wednesday featured one called "Tax and Regulator Burdens." It was followed after lunch by a session titled "The High Cost of Lawsuit Abuse." It wasn't too hard to figure out what those were going to show.
While there was a brief reference to potential good from governmental regulation, the overall tone was captured in this statement from Susan Dudley of George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia:
"From the moment you get out of bed in the morning you’re regulated. The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the label on the mattress on your bed. The cotton sheets on your bed are regulated by the Department of Agriculture. You may have to flush your toilet twice because of the low flow standards from the Department of Energy, and when you go downstairs for breakfast, even the size of the holes in the Swiss cheese that you grate into your omelet are regulated by the Department of Agriculture."
The clear message: such regulations are bad for businesses and bad for the economy and something needs to be done about it.
Vice President Dick Cheney opened the conference with a brief speech including a call for drastic simplification of the tax code, tossing out this statistic: "It's so complex that this country employs 1.2 million tax preparers.... that's larger than the entire United States Army."
But the marquee topic of the two-day event was Social Security. The president has made revamping the system a top second-term priority. Still no specifics from the White House on what Mr. Bush will propose, but at the conference he reiterated some absolutes. Current retirees must still get their checks, with no reduction in benefits. Younger workers must get a shot at setting up private investment accounts. And payroll taxes must not increase to make up for the money (between $1 trillion and $2 trillion) lost by the diversion of funds to private accounts.
The president got a laugh when he followed that list by saying, "So with these principles in mind, I'm open-minded."
The constant message on Social Security was that it's broke and it needs to be fixed — right now. It's a coming "train wreck" as one panelist put it. It's a "crisis" and "untenable" according to the president's own remarks. Not present at any point was the contrary view, available from many of those knowledgeable on the issue, that any crisis is still decades in the future and could be fended off with far less sweeping adjustments.
Democrats dismissed this White House Economic Conference as propaganda. Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey called it "an infomercial." And to be sure it received second-tier coverage in the press. But that doesn't seem to matter to the administration. This conference, like each rally of the campaign season, is part of the process of getting the message out in ways that are sometimes big and sometimes small.
This event helped the White House get a head start on defining the issues on Social Security and the other topics covered. Defining the issues is a matter of speaking with authority, clarity and consistent repetition. The Bush operation was masterful at this in the campaign and wants to continue its momentum. The fruit of this conference may be subtle, but it will be detectable in the feedback heard when the new Congress convenes in January, ready to take up the president's agenda.