Kerrey's Lament

August 10, 1993

That was quite a riveting speech Sen. Bob Kerrey delivered in casting the deciding vote for passage of President Clinton's budget bill. It was riveting, right-on in its moral message and quite wrong in suggesting that a president alone can overcome the political cynicism of institutional Washington.

If Mr. Kerrey instead of Mr. Clinton had been elected president last year, would he still be on the "high road" of "shared sacrifice," or would he, too, have taken "the low road of the too-easy compromise or the too-early collapse"? His attacks on fellow Democrats who "all too often ran" from challenge and on Republicans locked into "the idea of opposition" were passionate but a little self-serving.

Maybe a President Kerrey would not have yielded when members of Congress assaulted the proposal for a BTU energy tax that would have raised $72 billion and substituted a paltry 4.3 cents a gallon gasoline tax good for only $23 billion in added revenues. Maybe a President Kerrey would have declared that "our fiscal problems exist because of rapid, uncontrolled growth in programs that primarily benefit the middle class."

Yet -- get this -- during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, Mr. Kerrey advocated a middle class tax cut, $400 per person, almost as generous as Mr. Clinton's. It was former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas who denounced this idea as "pandering," but it helped Mr. Clinton win the presidency.

So a little skepticism is required in assessing this lament from Mr. Kerrey: "We ran when some seniors said they didn't want to pay any higher taxes. We ran when the program-getters, the salary-seekers, the pay-raise hunters, the COLA-receivers and other solicitors begged us to leave them alone." All good stuff, as was his charge that the Democrats chose the course of "political revenge" against the wealthy while the Republicans ganged up on a "green and inexperienced" president. These are powerful thoughts, ideas the Washington Establishment should ponder deeply even if Senator Kerrey was probably atoning as much as he was denouncing.

In the end, Senator Kerrey voted for the Clinton deficit-reduction bill even with all its flaws, weaknesses and timidity in facing the nation's challenge. He did so, in his own words, because "I could not and should not cast a vote that brings down [the Clinton] presidency." That, alas, is recognition of the political realities Mr. Kerrey loathed and railed against. He, too, had to join Bill Clinton on "the low road" of compromise and retreat because the alternative of a defeated presidency was worse.

Had Mr. Kerrey won the presidency, he would have had to make deals -- even deplorable deals -- to begin turning around economic policy. And, no doubt, he would have had to turn a middle-class tax cut into a middle-class tax hike -- one, that he believes should have been higher. Nevertheless, the senator did a service in giving the American people and their elected servants, including himself, a lecture they needed to hear.

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