Bush vow may come back to haunt him -- and us

January 09, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- President Bush committed another linguistic slip in California the other day when, responding to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's charge that his $1.35 trillion tax cut probably worsened the recession, he declared that "not over my dead body will they raise your taxes." Obviously, he didn't mean to put that "not" in there.

In any event, his meaning was clear, as was his implication that Mr. Daschle was calling for a rollback of Mr. Bush's huge tax cut over 10 years, which the Senate Democratic leader had not done. It is true, as the president said, that "there's going to be people that say we can't have the tax cut go through anymore," but Mr. Daschle wasn't one of them. Some other Democrats have suggested at least a delay in the cuts scheduled for next year, to combat erasing the surplus of the Clinton years and piling on more deficit.

The president had no linguistic problem when he referred to any rollback of his tax cut as "a tax raise." Clearly, after a tax reduction is enacted, subsequently scrubbing it can be characterized as a tax increase, even when all it amounts to is undoing one action with another.

As long as recession remains, there doubtless will be a continuing partisan war of words not only on the semantics but also on the substance of the congressional election-year debate on who's to blame and who has the right answers to right the economy.

There's enough truth on each side to ensure a lively and worthwhile exchange over this issue that already had the political dialogue by the throat before Sept. 11. By November, the economy is likely to vie for center stage with, if not overshadow, the issue of the administration's conduct of the war on terrorism, at least in the absence of another major attack.

Mr. Daschle's decision to open fire again on the already achieved Bush tax cut is a calculated effort to find a political battleground on which the president does not, as in combating terrorism, hold all the high cards. With voters worried about rising unemployment and an erratic stock market, it makes political sense for the Democratic leader to do so.

Whatever the merits of the $1.35 trillion windfall to taxpayers, mostly in the high range, it's indisputable that it left a breach in the dike of the Clinton surplus now being greatly widened by essential spending for Sept. 11 cleanup and enhanced homefront security.

Some key Democrats such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota argued well before Sept. 11 that the Bush cut would evaporate the surplus and mean deficit spending. The question now is whether the Democrats want to reinforce Mr. Bush's charges that they want "a tax raise" by rolling back his cut, and so far they, like Mr. Daschle, seem unwilling to give him that ammunition.

As for the president, who has a penchant for verbal gunslinging, he has abundant reason from the experience of his father to avoid making categorical declarations that give him no wiggle room against the unanticipated or unexpected. His assurance that any tax increase would come only "over my dead body" was a first cousin to George Bush the elder's insistence in his 1988 nomination acceptance speech pledge of "Read my lips--no new taxes." When the first President Bush later reneged under pressure from moderate advisers, Republican conservatives cried betrayal and many sat on their hands in his failed re-election bid in 1992.

Democratic challenger Bill Clinton cashed in on the flip-flop in debate that fall, declaring at one point: "I can't believe Mr. Bush is still trying to make trust an issue, after `Read my lips' and [another promise] of 15 million new jobs and embracing what he called `voodoo economics' [Mr. Bush's name, as a presidential candidate in 1980, for opponent Ronald Reagan's formula of big tax cuts and increased defense spending]."

The son certainly knows that history, so it can be surmised that he fully meant to take an irreversible stand against any tax increase by any name. But as the senior Mr. Bush learned to his chagrin, nobody can predict the future, especially in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of economics.

It will be unfortunate for the country if George W.'s locked-in-concrete position prevents him from changing his mind down the road if the uncertain economy should take a turn that truly warrants flexibility.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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