Budget blunders

Jim Fain

October 29, 1990|By Jim Fain

PRESIDENT BUSH is roaring out of here now in an eleventh-hour blitz to rescue GOP candidates and trash Democrats for "the mess in Washington."

Since every Republican in a tight race fought him fang and claw on his budget, this promises to be a spectacle. Except for fund raising, he's about as useful to them as a tarantula. They're busy boasting of how they tried to spare voters his tax increases.

Charles Black, who's running the party during Lee Atwater's illness, tried to put a cheerful face on the GOP debacle at a press breakfast. Americans know how Bush feels about taxes, he said. The big-spending Democrats made him do it.

Voters are unlikely to be that forgiving of a man who vowed never to raise their taxes but meant it only for those making over $1 million a year. Not that they expect politicians to keep promises. They do expect them to keep government running, and it's been visible on TV screens night after night that Bush himself was the stumbling block to working out a deal.

He kept blowing this way and that, unable to make up his mind. Had he given up earlier on cap gains, he could have had an agreement months ago. Or by bending on rates. Even after voters began seething under the unfairness of the new sales taxes, he could have had a deal by agreeing to a surtax on millionaires.

Ronald Reagan got away with running against the government he headed for eight years, but Bush lacks the Gipper's skill at dissembling. It's not that he doesn't try. He just can't fool people.

As a result, the "mess in Washington" is settling over his shoulders. The congressional budget teams didn't look that bad (except for renegade Newt Gingrich).

The problems came from the White House players, particularly chief of staff John Sununu, and finally from Bush himself. They gave us a long-running theater of the absurd, reflecting glory on no one.

Given the circumstances, the agreement itself was not too bad. Unfortunately, there's less to it than meets the eye. The projections for interest rates and the economy are wildly enthusiastic -- and they account for over $200 of the $500 billion we're supposed to whack out of the deficit in the next five years. Otherwise, its numbers are real, unlike the gimmickry used to meet Gramm- Rudman targets. The new taxes, as they finally emerged, are geared more toward fairness, thanks to the Democratic negotiators.

The super-rich, many of whom owe their Forbes' ratings to Reagan's tax generosity, probably will pay even more down the line. We also could use higher gasoline taxes as a conservation measure.

Black said Bush went through this political misery to get a deficit agreement because it would jump-start the economy. He didn't seem to know how that would work, however. Any anti-recession measures planned in case it doesn't? "I haven't heard any discussion of that," he said.

If the White House really believes a little Fed tinkering with short-term interest rates will jump-start this economy, we're in more trouble than we think.

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