Sunday, February 18, 2001

Don’t let the relative quiet in D.C. right now fool you. Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the soldiers sharpening their broadswords and battle-axes while the generals map our final plans in preparation for the coming Great Tax Cut War of 2001.

The Great Tax Cut War of 2001 between the Taxers and the Tax Cutters will consist of two major engagements. The second will take place in the halls of Congress and will be over votes. The first is now under way. It’s the battle for public opinion support.

Already sorties have been launched by both camps to probe the public’s reaction and the enemy’s resolve. George Bush II issues pronouncements that he will stick to his planned $1.6 trillion tax cut plan, while on his right flank, marauders like Rep. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, are charging forward to claim that the $1.6 trillion figure is, in fact, too modest.

Across the battlefield there is Gen. Dick Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, making typical saber-rattling and predictably preposterous remarks about the “failure” of Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in 1981.

The Tax Cutters have distinct advantages on paper. They have the presidency, the tiebreaker vote in the Senate and a majority in the House. But the Taxers feel emboldened in their own right. This president is untested while they are battle-hardened. The Senate may have 50 Republicans, but its majority is fiscally liberal. And the House has been afraid of its own shadow since, oh, 1995.

Add one more advantage for the Taxers: In the battle for public opinion, they have the national media on their side. It’s a press that is hell-bent on projecting one side as heroic, the other as irresponsible to the point of idiocy.

And if you think it’s not an advantage, you need only review history and the media’s treatment of George Bush I in a similar confrontation a decade ago.

It was George Bush I’s famous battle cry of “Read my lips: No new taxes” that won him the presidency in 1988. For two years thereafter, the drumbeat of media opposition to that pledge was merciless. It was reported as fact, over and over again, that the deficits were the root of all fiscal evil, and Mr. Reagan’s tax cuts the cause of the deficit. In fact, in 22 major network reports on the deficit in 1990, all pointed to the need for higher taxes. Not one saw fit to suggest that perhaps the insatiable appetite for new federal spending was the cause, with a fiscal diet in order for Congress.

President Bush I finally crumpled from the onslaught. Out the window went his pledge when he signed the Deficit Reduction Act. The Taxers in Congress celebrated their victory; then Arkansas Rep. Beryl Anthony, one of their leaders, claimed George Bush I had made a “surrender to reality.” The pro-tax media were equally emphatic: “President Bush today conceded that new taxes will be necessary to get the federal budget deficit under control,” declared Tom Brokaw on NBC.

From a policy perspective, there was no deficit reduction as a result of the act. Indeed, the outlandish new spending contained therein caused the deficit to soar another $100 billion immediately. From a political standpoint, the act was fatal to George Bush I. Some of his followers openly rebelled behind the banner of Patrick Buchanan. Others, disheartened, simply returned to their homes, shut the doors, and stood idly by as the armies of Bill Clinton stormed the castle walls two years later.

The dynamics in the coming Tax Cut War of 2001 are quite different, to be sure. There is no talk of a tax increase, not with a projected $5.6 trillion surplus over the next decade. (If it weren’t for that surplus, you would be betting your bottom dollar new taxes would be recommended.) This time the battle is clearly going to be fought on terrain chosen by the Tax Cutters. At this point the question is not if but by how much taxes will be cut. And then there is the remarkable fact that somehow Washington seems to have rediscovered the merits of Reaganomics. Even Alan Greenspan is embracing the idea that tax cuts spur economic growth.

The Taxers are reduced to the politics of fear, with the media as their willing mouthpieces. Already we’re hearing it on a nightly basis. The Bush tax plan is “massive,” and “risky” and “controversial,” and … it’s the same old broken Al Gore record.

So what should George Bush II do? Ignore the press. He should remember at all times that the country wants this. A large majority 67 percent approves today, and that number will only go higher as they see his determination to see this struggle through. He will win the public relations battle if he does. The legislative victory, and thus final triumph, will follow.

It’s just what Ronald Reagan did.

L. Brent Bozell III is chairman of the Media Research Center.

L. Brent Bozell III is chairman of the Media Research Center.

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