Jewish World Review June 2, 2003 / 2 Sivan, 5763
Prez's tax-cut catch-22 for Dems
The hazard of passing a landmark bill is that you lose the use of the associated issue in the next election: A president in his first term is banking the achievement, at the risk of making it harder to campaign for a second term. Since gratitude is a slender basis for winning re-election, most politicians would rather leave their agenda at least partially unfulfilled to run on it for another term.
But President Bush, in an unparalleled act of political brilliance, has managed to figure out how to have his cake and eat it too: Pocket the accomplishment of a tax cut, while preserving it as an issue for the next election.
He did it by letting himself be "defeated" in his demand for a $750 billion tax cut stretching over the next 10 years. Instead, he accepted what appeared to be less than half a loaf, agreeing to a $320 billion cut that sunsets in 2006.
That deal -with the Democrats and moderates in his own party - looks like typical legislative compromise, but is actually a move of incredible political acumen: The "sunset" provision, under which the tax cut automatically lapses unless expressly extended by new legislation, makes taxes a front-and-center issue of the 2004 election.
Now Bush can send refund checks of $400 for each child to 25 million households this summer, slash the tax on dividends and capital gains to 15 percent and reduce tax rates on all three brackets - all effective immediately - and still be able to base his re-election campaign on the need to preserve his tax cuts.
The president can run for re-election with an economy stimulated by his tax cuts and still have the issue to use in the '04 contest.
With the tax cuts slated to expire in the opening years of the next presidential term, every Democratic candidate will have to answer the question: "Will you support extending the Bush tax cut?"
A "no" will be required to win enough primary votes to get
the nomination. But a "yes" will be necessary to prevail in the general election. Bush has put the Democrats in an impossible position.
But the maneuver is even more impressive: It shows a really sophisticated appreciation of how the tax-cut issue works on a political level.
The constituency for a tax cut is always limited. Bush has never had much of a majority - if any - behind him on his tax cuts. After basing his campaign for the Republican nomination on tax cuts, he wisely stopped talking much about them and stressed an increased commitment to education and "compassionate conservatism" in his general-election platform.
Asked on a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll if they wanted a tax cut and how large it should be, only 20 percent of the sample opted for the full $750 billion recommended by the president.
But the issue in 2004 won't be whether to cut taxes - it will be whether to raise them, by letting the cut expire. And any poll asking if voters want a tax increase will find huge majorities saying, "No way!"
Accordingly, Bush won't accuse his rivals of opposing the tax cut. Rather, he'll charge that they want a tax hike.
In the language of electoral politics, that is the equivalent of supporting murder, rape and arson. The last candidate who ran promising to raise taxes was Walter Mondale in 1984 - who lost in a landslide.
Bush will happily tick off the tax "increases" his rival supports by refusing to extend the tax cuts past the sunset.
How can a Democrat oppose expanding the child-tax credit, lowering the tax rates on the two lowest brackets and repealing of the marriage penalty?
You can't win on that platform in November. But a candidate who doesn't embrace it in the primaries won't get nominated.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, "Power Plays: Top 20 Winning and Losing Strategies of History's Great Political Leaders" Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Dick Morris