Cries of `tax hike' don't faze Kennedy

January 18, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ted Kennedy, taking questions at the National Press Club the other day after calling for delays in future phases of President Bush's 10-year tax cut, was asked what he thought of the Republican tactic of branding his proposal a tax increase.

Mr. Kennedy noted that it was an old political gambit in the Senate to take an opponent's position, misstate it, then argue against the misstatement. "It's very effective," he said, smiling wryly. "I've used it myself."

But it's not a laughing matter for the Democrats to be labeled as tax-raisers in a congressional election year, when, barring further horrendous acts of terrorism, the critical issue in many campaigns will be the state of the struggling economy.

Accusing any politician of wanting to take a bite out of the voter's wallet is one of the surest ways to encourage taxpayer wrath, even if it involves just delaying a tax cut he hasn't received yet. That, obviously, is the objective of the Republican strategy of crying tax increase in defending Mr. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut of last year against the Massachusetts senator's assault.

Mr. Kennedy insists that it's not raising taxes to postpone them to take care of other more pressing needs and then see whether the economy improves sufficiently later to proceed with those delayed cuts.

The Republican response to that is that the very reason for the tax cuts is to stimulate the economy and any delays will undercut that rationale.

The Democrats shoot back that the cuts they want postponed won't occur in time to be a stimulus, and besides, they will be going to the wealthy, not the average Americans who need more money in their pockets now.

Republicans reply that there the Democrats go again, waging class warfare.

And so it goes, back and forth.

In his National Press Club speech, Mr. Kennedy argued that his proposal would "put on hold about $350 billion in future tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans during the next 10 years. Over $1 trillion of tax cuts will still take effect as scheduled."

He noted that the tax cuts "are not scheduled to be made until 2004 and later."

He argued, "We should put them on hold until we are certain that we can afford a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens, make the needed investments in education and health care, protect Social Security and fully provide for the common defense."

Other Democrats, such as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, have made the same argument for more spending in these categories, but have shied away from calling for repeal or postponement of the Bush tax cuts.

They have not wanted to invite the charge of wanting to raise taxes, but the charge has come anyway. In that sense, Mr. Kennedy has offered himself as a lightning rod for it.

In doing so, he has little to lose politically himself. He already is the Republican's favorite target as Senator Liberal, a sure-fire catalyst for GOP campaign contributions in fund-raisers to the party's conservative faithful.

In taking on Mr. Bush on taxes at this particular time, when Mr. Kennedy and the president have just been presented as best pals in the bipartisan enactment of education reforms, the senator, in a sense, is refurbishing his liberal credentials -- not that they are in any danger of losing their glow. His presidential ambitions apparently behind him, he is politically secure after 39 years in the Senate.

In this congressional election year, the Democrats will be countering the Republican tactic of labeling them as tax-raisers by reminding voters of the vanishing surplus built up in the Clinton years.

The Republicans will be responding by blaming the slide toward deficit spending on the recovery costs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, including bolstering homefront security.

It all sounds like a formula for an endless semantic debate and stalemate on the domestic priorities Mr. Kennedy embraces, such as prescription drug benefits for the elderly and other aspects of health care, including shoring up Social Security and Medicare.

Achieving progress on any of them while being painted as a stealth tax-raiser will be a large order.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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