Bush starts campaign for new tax cuts

Aides deploy strategies that helped sell 2001 plan

January 10, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hoping to duplicate the successful sales job he did for his tax cut two years ago, President Bush will be hop-scotching the nation in coming weeks, making his case directly to the public that his new tax-cut plan would create jobs and invigorate a sputtering economy.

The PR blitz began yesterday, when Bush visited a Virginia flag company that he said would receive a big boost from a proposed new tax break for small businesses. As usual when promoting policies to Americans around the country, Bush carried an anti-Washington message: Ignore all the inside-the-Beltway carping about the plan.

"You hear a lot of talk in Washington, of course, that this benefits so-and-so or this benefits this - kind of the class warfare of politics," he said, standing in front of an American flag.

Advocating his plan, Bush said, "I want people who need to put bread and food on the table to be able to do so, and more people working."

Beyond cheerleading by Bush himself, the White House is borrowing another page from the playbook that helped sell the 2001 tax cut: It is working newspaper editorial boards in towns large and small and will put senior aides on radio talk shows - especially in areas with lawmakers who are undecided on the Bush plan. Vice President Dick Cheney will give a speech today.

White House aides described their campaign as nearly identical to the public relations strategy Bush deployed two years ago to win a hard-fought victory on his $1.35 trillion tax cut.

But Democrats say times are different now and that rising budget deficits, economic uncertainty and a possible costly war in Iraq will make the public - and some lawmakers - less willing to accept Bush's proposal.

There are signs that the president faces a tougher battle this time. In a tightly divided Senate, some Democrats who backed the 2001 tax cut, and even some in Bush's party, have expressed opposition to the new Bush package in its current form.

Those members might approve some modified form of Bush's plan. But they complain that the $670 billion proposal is too costly and is skewed to aid the wealthiest Americans.

Some said they had supported the president's earlier tax cut with few changes because the nation's budget was not in the red as it is now.

"We believe that the ballooning deficit is bad for the economy, it's bad for interest rates and it's bad for the health of the nation," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who backed the 2001 tax cut.

Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee of Rhode Island, one of two Republican senators to vote against the last Bush tax cut, said: "Back then, of course, the surpluses were projected. There was a feeling, perhaps we could afford this. I don't think anyone shares that now. We're back to deficits. ... And there are added costs, with the war, homeland security, and [education] and other initiatives."

Bush's supporters acknowledge that rising deficits have handed Democrats an argument they lacked in 2001. The president, they suggested, must convince Americans that his plan would help quickly stimulate the economy, something Democrats dispute. Some Bush allies predict that the president's plans to take his case to the public, coupled with his high popularity, could drown out critics and win over his audience.

"He is a good campaigner, a good salesman and the White House is so good at staying on message," said Charles Black, a Republican strategist who is close to the administration. "Sure, this argument about deficits is in play now. But it will be trumped by the need for economic growth."

Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said his organization was gearing up to join the White House in its campaign, as it did last time. The group is considering television ads in Rhode Island and Arizona, the home states of the two Republican senators - Chafee and John McCain - who opposed the 2001 tax cut. Both have raised concerns about the new package.

White House aides have been on the phone this week with editorial writers around the country, pitching Bush's tax plan, and have been setting up interviews for local reporters with senior administration officials.

A reporter from the Press-Herald in Portland, Maine, for example, was invited to join a conference call with Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, who responded to Democratic complaints that Bush's economic plan offered no money to cash-needy state governments.

"The president, having been a governor himself, understands the tough budget issues that all governors are dealing with right now," Evans was quoted as saying in Bush's defense.

The newspaper circulates in a state where two moderate Republican senators, Olympia J. Snowe and Susan M. Collins, have expressed skepticism about Bush's package.

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