Despite changes, bill's main goal still intact ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

August 09, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON --For all the criticism that President Clinton let his deficit-reduction package get nibbled to insignificance in the frantic drive to get it through Congress, the bill that finally ran the gantlet remained a basic challenge to the Reaganomics that ruled the roost for 12 years.

Although the specific numbers could be quibbled about, the bill's clear objective was to put a brake on the borrow-and-spend philosophy of Ronald Reagan that had enabled the government to stay afloat in the wake of the sharp tax cuts of 1981. And with the bark off, the Democratic package reverted to the old party standbys of soak-the-rich and look-out-for-the-poor that have been staples of its own philosophy since New Deal days.

But so effectively have the Republicans over the years characterized that philosophy as Democratic pandering for votes, persuading many middle-income Americans that they have been made suckers for society's ne'er-do-wells, that the Democrats have often felt obliged to soft-pedal their approach. When Republicans have accused them of fostering "class warfare" -- rich against poor -- the Democrats have generally ducked.

Through most of the period after Clinton proposed his deficit-reduction plan in February, the Democrats failed to emphasize that the overwhelming burden of new taxes would fall on the rich, and the better off, enabling the Republicans to advance the notion that it was the middle class that would be taking the biggest hits. This was probably the single most notable reason that polls continued to indicate strong voter opposition to the president on deficit reduction.

Only in the final round of debate did the administration make a concerted effort to convince voters that individuals making less than $140,000 a year or couples making less than $180,000 would face no increase in their income taxes, and that only the richest 1.2 percent of Americans would be hit.

The same was true about higher taxes on Social Security beneficiaries, which the Democrats failed to make clear would not apply to 87 percent of the elderly in the program.

The Democrats also did a poor job in letting Medicare recipients know that cuts of $56 billion over five years would not be borne by them, but rather by hospitals and doctors through reduced reimbursement schedules. And they failed to spotlight new tax breaks for the working poor and more funds for food stamps -- both time-honored targets of Republican attacks as handouts to the unworthy.

In other words, the Clinton plan embodied much of the old Democratic philosophy by a president calling himself a new Democrat.

It was not surprising, therefore, that polls in the final days before the showdown votes indicated most Americans believed that the middle class would be hit hardest by the new taxes, although the only one being planned for them was a 4.3 cent increase in the gas tax, estimated to cost the average driver less than a dime more a day.

As a result, it was easy politics for the Republicans to march in lock step against the package, casting themselves as vehicles for expression of the public will.

And conversely, Democrats were faced with the prospect of voter vengeance against them at the ballot box in 1994 for seeming to ignore what the folks at home were saying they wanted.

Early on, House Democrats complained to Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm that the party and the Clinton administration were doing a poor job selling the deficit-reduction package, and providing them political cover.

Their complaints contributed to the eventual effort made to tell middle-income voters that it wasn't true that they were bearing the brunt of new taxes.

The bill that finally went back to the House and Senate was not, to be sure, the sort of legislation that old New Dealers would have been proud of, and that Republicans could legitimately attack as a typical New Deal giveaway. But it did announce that as far as the Democrats were concerned, the fiscal costs of the Reagan era's 12-year borrowing binge had to be confronted. And, as Jesse Jackson used to say, "Those who enjoyed themselves at the party should pay for the party."

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