On tax cuts, other items GOP is out of step with public . . .

August 08, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

THEY hold a majority in both houses of Congress. Yet Republicans have exhibited a surprising tin ear in aligning their program with the concerns of most Americans.

That could cost them precious House seats and perhaps even turn them into a minority party in that chamber next year.

On a wide range of issues, GOP leaders are shooting blanks. Pick a topic and the Republican position differs sharply from what Americans say they want.

In a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, Americans rejected the GOP Congress' handling of Social Security reform, gun-control legislation, Medicare reforms, education issues, a patients' bill of rights and cutting taxes.

Indeed, the GOP's top priority, a stunning $800 billion tax cut, ranks low on the public's list.

When those polled were asked how the federal surplus could best be spent, they favored social programs and eliminating the nation's debt. Just 20 percent -- one in five -- picked tax cuts.

Yet Republicans have made tax cuts their prime political weapon. "We're for tax cuts and the big-spending Democrats aren't," is the party line.

But most Americans aren't upset about pouring dollars into domestic programs. They see the need. They are way ahead of Republicans in supporting debt reduction, too.

That's one of the strangest twists. Historically, the Republican Party has been the party of old-fashioned, no-deficit budgeting, without any tricks or Keynesian pump-priming. Paying off your IOUs is part of that tradition.

Yet now it's the Democratic Party of President Clinton that is hot to wipe out the federal debt, and the Republicans that are vehemently in opposition.

And guess who's cheering on the Democrats? Those steadfast Republicans on Wall Street. They understand what a stunning impact debt reduction could have on lowering interest rates for decades to come. Among the loudest cheerleaders: The revered conservative Republican who heads the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.

Congressional Republicans have been outmaneuvered.

Evil big brother

At the heart of the GOP's strategy is a belief that government is evil. The less government, the better. The more individual freedom, the better.

The GOP tax cut is meant to devour most of the projected budget surplus. This way, the money can't be used to expand government support of social programs. Indeed, it could mean staggering reductions in non-defense spending in future years of 43 percent. That's the plan. Force government to shrink its size.

It's a sound notion -- in theory. But it collides with reality. People today don't want less service from government -- they want more. Yes, they seek fewer restrictive regulations and faster, more efficient responses to their problems. But Americans are hooked on help from Uncle Sam.

Spending spree

That's why Republicans, even while passing a record-breaking tax cut, are adding billions more for social spending. In effect, they are wiping out next year's entire "on-budget" surplus with this added spending, leaving no room for unexpected emergencies, or paying off the national debt, or solving Medicare's long-term shortfall.

It raises major questions how the GOP will ever make room in future budgets for all the tax cuts its proposal mandates over the next decade.

This is an Alice-in-Wonderland world filled with congressional sleights of hand. The ones being hoodwinked are the folks outside the Washington beltway.

What's so shocking is that the burning desire of Republican leaders to cut taxes (and thus cut the size of government) is a gift for Democrats in next year's election.

Which party seems most determined to bolster the Social Security trust fund? Which party appears intent on fortifying Medicare? Which party favors restrictions on handguns, more protections for people in managed-care health programs and schools?

It's the Democrats, not the less-government, cut-taxes-at-all-costs Republicans.

Congressional leaders feel they can persuade constituents to embrace the GOP tax-cut mantra before the November 2000 elections.

That could be a very tough sell, though, especially with the Democrats and Mr. Clinton portraying Republicans as the party of the rich, a party that is out of touch with the American public.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

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