- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2003

Democrats running for president are gambling big in the political poker game of taxes.

President Bush is betting on tax cuts, having signed three since he took office.

Every Democrat running to challenge Mr. Bush has bet on rolling back the tax cuts, and some on raising taxes outright.

“It’s a gamble for sure,” said Dante Scala, politics professor at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “The Democratic candidates as a whole are betting on the notion that Bush’s domestic agenda is all about tax cuts.”

If the economy doesn’t improve, Mr. Scala said, the Democrats will be ready to pick up the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, would roll back some of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts and raise others.

“The Bush tax cuts have resulted in a ballooning deficit,” said Graham spokeswoman Kristian Denny. “People are losing their jobs, their savings. The economy is faltering.”

The budget deficit for fiscal 2003 is expected to reach more than $400 billion.

Mr. Graham’s only tax raise would be for millionaires, Ms. Denny said, an increase of the top rate to 40 percent from the 38.6 percent before Mr. Bush’s tax cuts. Mr. Bush has lowered that top rate to 35 percent.

“Right now, the tax cuts benefit the wealthy,” Ms. Denny said. “The middle class doesn’t see a whole lot of the cuts.”

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have proposed wiping out all of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts to support new programs and pay off the deficit.

“Richard Gephardt is taking the biggest gamble,” said Mr. Scala, pointing out that the presidential hopeful proposes sinking everything into a new health care plan without paying off the deficit. “He’s really tossing fiscal prudence to the wind.”

The Democrats are walking into a political firing squad, said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

“These Democrats are getting themselves in deeper and deeper problems if they want to take away tax cuts that people have seen, felt, tasted and spent,” he said.

Jennifer Duffy, with the Cook Political Report, said the gamble isn’t so dangerous right now, because the candidates are playing to the more-liberal Democrats who vote in the primary.

“It’s more dangerous for them in the general election,” she said, adding that the stands the candidates take now could be held against them later. “They’re giving Republicans something to work with.”

That’s part of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council’s message.

“If Democrats take the bait and mount a crusade to take away middle-class tax cuts, Bush will prevail,” DLC officials told their members yesterday in a strategy memo on the 2004 election.

“But if Democrats turn the issue around, and come out for lowering the middle-class tax burden instead of helping the wealthy, Bush will have nothing left to say,” said the memo by Al From and Bruce Reed, the group’s founder and president, respectively.

Donald Lambro contributed to this report.

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