Who will ward off Voodoo II?

May 08, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - More than 20 years ago, the senior George Bush, running against Ronald Reagan for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, coined a phrase he lived to regret - not because it was in error, but because soon after he uttered it he had to eat it.

The phrase was "voodoo economics," Mr. Bush's characterization of Mr. Reagan's pipe dream that he could make deep tax cuts, massively raise defense spending and still balance the federal budget. It never happened.

Mr. Bush made the remark in Pittsburgh, and it hung out there as an embarrassment when Mr. Reagan, after toying with the idea of former President Gerald Ford as his running mate, settled rather reluctantly on Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bush's denial of ever having uttered the phrase was shot down by a reporter's tape recording documenting it.

All this comes to mind now that the junior George Bush, without using the noxious label, is pursuing a brand of voodoo economics of his own, remarkably close to the version with which Mr. Reagan wrecked the nation's fiscal health in the 1980s.

Since his occupancy of the White House, the junior Mr. Bush has pushed through huge tax cuts, initiated heavy new defense spending and, until Sept. 11, assured the country he would keep the budget in the surplus he inherited from the Clinton years.

But even before Sept. 11 and the cost of waging the war on terrorism, the surplus was rapidly vanishing.

The projected deficit for this fiscal year is now more than $100 billion.

Through all this, most Democrats in Congress have been relatively quiet, apparently intimidated by the popularity of the wartime president who never hesitates to play the patriotism card to keep any daring critics in line.

This is so even as President Bush has outdone Mr. Reagan's voodoo economics by pushing to make permanent his $1.3 trillion (or more) tax cuts over 10 years, and by calling for new cuts, while offering an unbalanced budget plunging the federal ledger deeper in the red.

With some validity, the president blames part of the deficit on Democrats in Congress for insisting on more social spending, such as their demands for prescription drug benefits beyond what his own party advocates. The Democrats respond, also with validity, that they are not going to abandon the poor and elderly just so Mr. Bush can give most of his tax cuts to the rich.

Yet the Democrats, if they truly believe that the Bush tax cuts are unjust and destructive to the nation's fiscal health, shy away from the obvious solution. They decline to call for a repeal of the cuts, or even, with a few exceptions, for a moratorium on them until the country can better afford them.

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, while repeatedly warning that Mr. Bush's tax cuts were sending the country's economic well-being over a cliff, has declined to entertain even a gesture toward repealing them. Attempting it would be futile, he says, because the votes to override a Bush veto are not there in a Senate that has only a one-vote Democratic majority.

Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts months ago urged the modest step of a postponement of tax cuts not yet made, but his recommendation was a lone voice, ignored by most of his colleagues.

Instead, the Democrats settle for grousing about how Mr. Bush has squandered the federal surplus built up by Bill Clinton (and cooperating Republican leaders in Congress) and working to block making the 10-year tax cuts permanent. With the off-year congressional elections on the horizon, it's a wonder that the cry of "voodoo economics" is not being heard from them.

George Bush Sr. backed off the words in 1980 for the practical reason that they wouldn't have been loyal coming from Mr. Reagan's grateful running mate. The Democrats have no such rationale for not reminding voters more forcefully that the country has experienced this witch doctor's brew once before, with disastrous results.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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