What Republicans Should Do

February 22, 1993

As they berate President Clinton for acting like an "old Democrat," too many members of the loyal opposition are acting like "old Republicans." So obsessed are they with their hatred of taxes -- especially the huge tax increase in the Clinton economic package -- that they may be overlooking an even more lucrative target: the burst of new spending Mr. Clinton has proposed despite his self-portrayal as a deficit-fighter extraordinaire.

There is evidence the president knows his vulnerability. In appearance after appearance in his sales campaign to the American public, Mr. Clinton taunts the Republicans to offer specific spending cuts over and above what he himself has proposed. This is a neat diversion, but the GOP would be wise not to let it distract attention from the $16 billion spending boost the president is pushing as a first order of business.

With the recovery gaining strength, there is a good case to be made against new spending that will increase rather than decrease the deficit this fiscal year and next. The administration claims its "investment" package will produce more than 500,000 full- and part-year jobs by spending $3 billion on highways, $2.5 billion on Community Development Block Grants, $845 million on wastewater clean-up initiatives, $1 billion on youth employment, plus billions on Amtrak improvements, high-speed train development, upgrading of veterans facilities and a lot of other nice things.

But before Republicans let these purse strings open, they should determine if a case can be made that the 500,000 new jobs will be created anyway by a resurging private sector -- a healthier, more permanent improvement that would produce the revenue to shrink the deficit before the government starts pump-priming to expand it.

Conservatives will, of course, argue that new taxes could short-circuit the recovery just when it is taking off through resounding increases in productivity and profits. But without a good portion of the added income and energy tax revenue budgeted in the Clinton plan, there is no way the federal government can keep from plunging more and more into debt. And unless the financial markets are assured that the deficit will at last be kept in check, long-term interest rates could start rebounding, choking off the recovery more definitively than Clinton tax increases. Republicans will not prosper if they are seen only as obstructionists to a Democratic president trying to deal with deficits Reagan-Bush policies did so much to create.

Probably, congressional Democrats will find Mr. Clinton's candy box stimulus package irresistible when it comes to the floor in the very near future. They will whiz it through along with an extension of unemployment benefits. But Republicans can challenge this unneeded binge and thereby outdo the president in his deficit-cutting game -- that is, if the GOP can get off its anti-tax kick. What the country needs is not only a loyal and responsible opposition, but a smart one.

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