Bush's rosy 2001 forecast yields to reality of '02 in red

January 04, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The start of a new year is supposed to be a time to put the past behind us and look to the future.

That's fine if you're a football fan whose team didn't get a bowl bid or make the NFL playoffs.

But if you're in the business of assessing the state of the country at this juncture, it's necessary to reflect a bit on where we've been. And where we've been really consisted of two periods in 2001 - before and after Sept. 11.

In the first eight months of 2001, we were a country that was fat, dumb and happy, even as the state of our economy was sliding downhill fast.

After the political fiasco in Florida that put George W. Bush in the White House and Al Gore off elsewhere growing a beard, the country settled into a kind of economic dream world.

The new president had campaigned in 2000 on the issue of a tax cut because, amid an era of unimagined surpluses, the American taxpayer simply deserved one.

Then, when the economy turned sour, he switched his rationale for the cut, saying it would help put the brakes on the slipping economy.

In spite of the warnings of some Democrats that a big tax cut would kill off the surpluses, Congress bought Mr. Bush's call for tax reduction to the tune of $1.35 trillion - or was it $1.6 trillion or more, as others calculated?

In any event, most of us got a letter from Uncle Sam notifying us that, thanks to George W., we would be getting a nice check from the IRS for $300, or $600 if we were a couple. And the check not only was in the mail; it actually arrived.

If the intent was to light a fire under the economy as a result of a taxpayer spending spree at the mall, however, it didn't happen. Still, it no doubt did give many recipients of that fat rebate a nice warm feeling. Never mind the indications that various domestic needs that Mr. Bush said still could be met with the remaining surplus were going begging. Or that the Social Security kitty would have to be raided to keep the federal books above water.

Then came the skyjack attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Partisanship in Congress was immediately shown the door by Republicans and Democrats alike in a commendable rush to demonstrate national solidarity against the terrorist threat. Billions were voted for homeland security and to help New York dig out of the destruction wrought to the Wall Street financial district.

You might have thought that these most justifiable responses to the attacks would have led to a clarion presidential call for major sacrifices from all Americans. But no. The president after Sept. 11 asked for little beyond a greater alertness to future attack and a few deprivations of civil liberties here and there, chiefly affecting folks who don't look like most of us.

In fact, in the context of providing an economic stimulus needed in the wake of the attacks, Mr. Bush called for even more tax cuts to provide even more relief for the biggest taxpayers who, not coincidentally, make and have the most money in America.

The Democrats, many of whom had meekly gone along with the original tax cuts while questioning whether they were needed and were going to the right people, belatedly declined to crumble this time around.

In doing so, they earned the wrath of the Bush administration, with the implication that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle particularly was hindering the war effort with his intransigence on more tax cuts.

This is where matters now stand as a new year unfolds. Democrats might ordinarily be expected to call for repeal of the earlier, unwise tax cuts to help pay for the increased costs of fighting the war on terrorism and protecting the homefront. But if they do so they will risk Republican charges of unpatriotically not going along with the program of a very popular president.

So the prospect for 2002, after all those rosy projections of balanced budgets and surpluses of only a year ago, is for a return to more red ink and federal deficits as we fight a war with one hand while shelling out more tax breaks to the rich. Is this a great country or what?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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