A tax cut New Deal would lament

May 04, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Just about a year ago, when Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush was touting a huge tax cut as the prime item in his pitch to the American people, it seemed his chances of achieving it were microscopic.

By this time in the 2000 presidential primary cycle, he had already salted away his party's nomination. But Democratic candidate Al Gore had done the same on the Democratic side, and had the tax-cutting Texan in his sights.

Mr. Gore's talents for destroying the opposition had just been abundantly demonstrated in his aggressive disposal of Bill Bradley. He took dead aim on Mr. Bush's record of tax-cutting as governor in Texas, and the smart money figured he would shred Mr. Bush's chief campaign proposal.

Mr. Gore was echoing President Bill Clinton's mantra that with the economy soaring and surpluses going through the roof, it was time to pay down the national debt and thus erase massive interest payments.

It certainly was not the time, Mr. Gore argued, to enact any such deep tax cuts. He made a modest counterproposal just to show he wasn't entirely unsympathetic to giving the taxpayers a small break.

Mr. Bush seemed to be shouting down a rain barrel, and an old one at that.

Many Republicans in Congress, for whom tax cuts were party gospel in the old days, were acknowledging to each other that those days were over. Voters knew all too well how the federal deficit had soared under Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax slashes, and if they didn't remember, the Democrats were there to refresh their memories.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the November election. The boom and Wall Street began to go south. By Election Day, Mr. Bush was going beyond his original tax-cut spiel that voters "deserved" a cut because "Washington, D.C." would only spend the money if you left it there. Now he was warning darkly of recession -- not caused by him, mind you -- and the cut was imperative to avoid it.

Suddenly Mr. Bush's pipe dream of earlier in the year did not seem so crazy anymore to many voters. There is no telling what persuasive role the tax cut played in the election that was finally awarded to him by the narrowest Supreme Court majority. But there he was in the Oval Office, in position to push for it.

Mr. Bush set the cut at a whopping $1.6 trillion, insisting the country could easily afford it and still eat away at the deficit. And even with only a slim margin in the House, his Republican troops along with a few Democrats swallowed the whole hog. But the Senate, with a 50-50 party split, was not going to be so easy.

Senate Democrats got their backs up and chopped 25 percent off the Bush plan, approving "only" $1.2 trillion and congratulating themselves for dealing a defeat to the new president.

Some defeat. Here was a tax-cut proposal that only a year earlier had been considered all but dead, and House and Senate tax experts got busy deciding how to split the difference between $1.6 trillion and $1.2 trillion.

Now that the Senate Democrats appear to have managed to pressure the House to take a figure closer to theirs -- $1.35 trillion -- what has resulted is a remarkable resurrection of a bad idea achieved by Mr. Bush's sheer tenacity, and some luck. The fact that most of the cut will go to the top 5 percent of income-earners at the expense of health and welfare benefits, including children's programs, is left for the bleeding hearts to worry about.

What makes the situation even more remarkable is that Mr. Bush cannot by the wildest stretch of the imagination claim any sort of real mandate for his monster cut; not after losing the popular vote by more than half a million ballots in November. But the election is over and his popularity in the polls is climbing. The rest, the Bush folks like to tell the Democrats, is sour grapes.

If old New Dealers like Franklin Roosevelt turned over in their graves at the ideological trimmings of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, they doubtless are spinning horizontal pirouettes over their party's acquiescence in George W.'s Treasury raid in behalf of his fiscal soul brothers. At least, Democrats in Congress, spare us of boasts of victory in reducing Mr. Bush's Everest of a tax cut to a mere Mont Blanc.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.