The soul of the Republican Convention goes on display when the lights go down Thursday night for the prime time presidential spectacular. While President Bush's comments on the war in Iraq will likely generate the next day's headlines, the Bush-Cheney campaign believes the real news to voters yet to choose between the president and Democrat John Kerry will be the president's words on health care, retirement and schools.
The message from the president is being crafted to catch the attention of suburban women voters, in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, who may pay little attention to the latest news from Iraq but who will decide an election that is still too close to call.
Even the setting is intended to send a message to undecided moms worried about paying bills and educating the kids. President Bush will speak from a special circular platform in the middle of the delegates at Madison Square Garden. The image, carefully crafted by media adviser Mark McKinnon, will be of a strong but caring president who is open to people and in touch with their concerns.
The presentation of the domestic agenda is critical because every poll shows that voters, especially women, trust Kerry to do a better job with the economy, health care, schools and even on taxes. In fact, one of the most upsetting poll numbers for the Bush campaign is the steady majority of Americans, again led by women, who tell pollsters the nation is headed in the wrong direction.
To reassure people that he is aware of their anxieties and ready to help them, the president will offer a series of proposals to give Americans more control over the money they put into health care, savings and retirement plans. It is part of what the Bush team is calling an "Ownership Society."
The first part of the plan is to create private retirement accounts as part of the Social Security system. Some taxes paid into Social Security will be funneled into individual investment plans that allow for individual control and investment of the funds.
Part two is a national sales tax to replace the federal income tax. The idea got a big boost in House Speaker Dennis Hastert's recent book as a simple plan to boost savings. A national sales tax is a regressive tax, of course, because middle-class and poor people spend a larger share of their income on consumer goods than do rich people. And it will add about 25 percent to existing local and state sales taxes. But like a flat tax, the national sales tax will close all the loopholes the rich use to avoid paying income taxes. And it is designed to encourage saving and investment that give families more control over their financial fate.
And the third part of the ownership triangle for a second Bush term is to put in place tax incentives for families to take control of their health care and education saving plans. The upside of the plan is to allow people to keep their health care plan even if they change jobs or are out of work. And the plan will allow people to afford college without having the government create new scholarship plans. It is in keeping with President Bush's desire to put in a voucher plan that lets Americans choose where to put their children in school. One added feature to his No Child Left Behind plan is an increase in standards and accountability -- in exchange for added funds -- for high school math and science programs.
The emphasis on "ownership" comes as a political option because the president's team does not believe he can win congressional support for another round of tax cuts.
In the president's first term, his premier domestic achievement was the passage of his tax cuts. In June 2001 the president got Congress to approve $1.3 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years. And that was only three-quarters of the tax cut the president first proposed.
He followed that gargantuan tax cut with yet another in 2003. The second tax cut of $330 billion over 10 years was passed as the economy stalled and the president was able to make the case for tax cuts as a necessary spur for an economy still hurting from the Sept. 11 attacks. Even so, Vice President Cheney had to cast the tie-breaking vote to get the tax cut approved by Congress.
With a growing $445 billion deficit, the idea of further tax cuts now morphs into strategies that give people more control over their money; the more money you have the more control you have.
It is late in the campaign for the president to be unveiling new ideas to win over undecided voters. But the Bush team is placing a last-minute bet that it can win by speaking to pocketbook issues.
The bottom line for this GOP convention will be whether those suburban moms outside Philadelphia, Columbus and St. Louis are buying a prime-time political infomercial for the Ownership Society starring George W. Bush.