Presidential election years bring both peril and opportunity. Peril, if politicians push crowd-pleasing but irresponsible measures to get reelected. Opportunity, if they seek to distinguish themselves by acting like leaders and appealing to the public's longer-term interests. Here's a challenging agenda for political leadership in 2004:STABILIZE IRAQ. This July, coalition forces are scheduled to hand over authority to representatives of the Iraqi people. Adhering to that timetable is essential for keeping faith with both Iraqis and Americans who want to see a beginning to the end of the occupation. The coalition must destroy the remaining terrorist cells while rebuilding the civilian infrastructure. Whether one thinks the invasion of Iraq was smart or foolish, there's no question that order must be restored and the economy restarted as soon as possible so that Iraq is not a breeding ground for terror.RESTART GLOBAL TRADE TALKS. Sure, the climate is poor. Many Americans are in no mood to bargain, feeling that free trade has cost millions of jobs. And developing countries say they won't budge until rich countries stop subsidizing their farmers. The impasse is dismaying because free trade creates many more winners than losers. As a start, the U.S. should begin to reduce subsidies for wasteful overproduction. President Bush must lead on free trade, not hamper it.FIX ENERGY POLICY. Congress fell just short of passing a bad energy bill in 2003. Passing a better -- and cheaper -- bill should be high on the agenda for 2004. Strip out the subsidies for producers of oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear power, and ethanol. Emphasize conservation. And give the federal government more authority to oversee the power grid and prevent any further large-scale blackouts.PROTECT INVESTORS AND CONSUMERS. The Securities & Exchange Commission should adopt strict rules for mutual funds as soon as possible, while stopping the turf wars that have hindered its ability to detect new types of abuses. And the Agriculture Dept. should get tougher. It's outrageous that the department -- under pressure from industry lobbyists -- has done so little until now to test cattle for mad cow disease.CONTROL THE DEFICIT. Some tax cuts and spending increases were needed to restore economic growth and pay for defense. But both the cuts and the budget increases are out of control. Spending must be reduced, but the tax cuts are so big that they practically guarantee budget deficits even when the economy is running at full tilt. By frittering away national savings, the federal government is forcing the nation to import capital from abroad to fund investment. Little wonder the dollar is declining.
Election years aren't always times of pandering. In 1984, President Reagan responded to mounting deficits by signing a law rolling back part of his historic tax cut and cutting spending. Supply-siders never quite forgave him, but the economy kept growing anyway. Let's hope Washington rises above the fray to do the right things in 2004.