Clinton was wise to wait to administer bitter pill ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND And JULES WITCOVER

February 19, 1993|By JACK GERMOND And JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The last time a prominent Democrat told the American people as flatly as President Clinton did in his State of the Union address that he intended to raise their taxes, the results were cataclysmic.

That was 8 1/2 years ago, when Walter F. Mondale, just nominated by his party to run against President Ronald Reagan, proclaimed in his acceptance speech:

"Here is the truth about the future. We are living on borrowed money and borrowed time. These deficits hike interest rates, clobber exports, stunt investment, kill jobs, undermine growth, cheat our kids and shrink our future. Whoever is inaugurated in January, the American people will pay Mr. Reagan's bills. The budget will be squeezed. Taxes will go up. And everyone who says they won't is not telling the truth . . . Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did."

The obvious difference between Clinton's speech and Mondale's was that Clinton's was made after he got elected, Mondale's before he was soundly defeated. Giving the voters the bad medicine before they cast their votes doomed whatever chance Mondale had against Reagan, which wasn't much. The Republicans jumped all over him as just another tax-and-spend Democrat, which indeed they are saying about Clinton now. But Clinton prudently waited until he was in the Oval Office to give out the bad news.

There is, however, another important distinction that gives Clinton hope that voters will not come down on him the way they smothered Mondale in 1984. Mondale ran off for weeks without explaining who was and wasn't targeted. Clinton has given assurances that he intends to hit the rich hardest and ask most Americans to pay higher energy taxes, which are not all that visible, rather than higher income taxes.

After the Mondale speech in 1984, the young governor of Arkansas, a fellow named Bill Clinton, told us that what Mondale had to do was lay out in detail that he was going to put the new tax money into a trust to be used only for deficit reduction. He was well aware of how the tax-and-spend label could undo his party's nominee if he appeared to be raising taxes just to feed old liberal spending programs.

It was not until sometime later that Mondale put out the details of his tax proposals. They showed that households with incomes of less than $25,000 a year would pay no new taxes, those making between $25,000 and $35,000 less than two dollars a week more and those making up to $45,000 only four bucks more. Most of the burden, as in Clinton's proposals now, would fall on the well-off.

But by the time Mondale made those details public, the Republicans had carved him into little pieces. Clinton, by carefully telegraphing his tax proposals and then spelling them out at once, has at least let the voters know who is going to get hit and who isn't, and roughly by how much.

This orchestration isn't going to save the new president from the customary onslaught from Republicans on the issue of raising taxes. They saw in the political collapse of their own president last year the perils of approving new taxes. George Bush, however, made the mistake of playing Clint Eastwood with the issue with his "read my lips -- no new taxes" pledge and then breaking it.

Clinton's bigger problem may be that middle-income taxpayers will believe they were taken to the cleaners with his early campaign talk of a tax cut for them in the interest of fairness, after 12 years of bearing the brunt of Reagan Revolution benefits for the rich. Now he says fairness is making sure the rich pay too.

Clinton has the recent evidence in the Ross Perot candidacy that talking turkey on the deficit and the need for more taxes isn't necessarily a sure ticket to public condemnation. It is true that Perot to many voters probably was mainly a vehicle to express their discontent, rather than a candidate they wanted or expected to win, and administer the bitter fiscal medicine he was prescribing. But he did help condition the public for the message of sacrifice.

For a long time now, the cry has been for politicians to step up to the plate on the country's fiscal mess. Nearly nine years after Mondale tried it, Clinton is betting his own political future on doing the same, and appears to have learned something from Mondale's failure.

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