- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Whatever it does or doesn’t accomplish, the newly passed $350 billion tax cut is fraught with political dangers for both parties. If it succeeds in stimulating lagging national growth, the Republicans win, and if it doesn’t, the Democrats will.

Seldom in recent history have both parties wagered so much on a legislative package that looks as though it were designed by the late Rube Goldberg. In fact, the authors probably should be given the 2003 Reuben Award, presented annually to the outstanding national cartoonist. Before it is over, they may need the stipend that goes along with it.

The anti-deficit forces, the Democrats (in the old days around here, that used to be the Republicans), are betting that the infusion of new money into the sluggish economy will have little or no immediate impact, although it is set up to get the extra taxpayer spending power out there quickly. They argue, with some credibility, that most of the savings will go to those who won’t spend it, and that the huge deficits it causes will have a debilitating impact. The Republicans, of course, are convinced otherwise.

What this is all about is 2004, the pundit’s shorthand for next year’s presidential elections. George W. Bush’s preoccupation with the war on terrorism and with the one in Iraq has led him to neglect an economy that is resisting improvement. The specter of his father’s 1992 defeat largely because of the economy is never far from his mind, or the minds of his political advisers.

For those whose understanding of economics is based largely on one or two college courses taken several decades ago and refined by years of trying to balance a checkbook, it would be foolish to speculate how this will turn out. The personal goal after a certain age is trying to make one’s money and one’s life come out even. It is better to leave the predictions to those with certificates in heavy thinking, although after years of watching them operate, it is easy to believe the old bromide about all the economists being lined up end-to-end and never reaching a conclusion. The term “unexacting science” derives from their specialty. But who’s knocking it? After all, they give Nobel Prizes for economic genius — which is more than they do for those who dabble in political commentary.

But when it comes to an advanced degree in analyzing the political scene, guess who is ahead. And one thing learned over 45 years of study is that war or no war, the issue closest to the hearts of American voters is the pocketbook. In times of prosperity, presidents can get by with nearly anything; just ask Bill Clinton. When things aren’t going well economically, the person in the Oval Office is highly vulnerable, no matter what; check with George Bush the elder, who watched a 90 percent approval rating washed away by a slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

This much seems perfectly clear. This economy now belongs to George W. Bush. His stamp is indelibly affixed to it, and whatever happens, he will rise and fall with that. There can be no excuses even if the cut is, on the surface at least, $400 billion short of what he initially sought. Amidst the gimmickry of this bill are sunset provisions that nearly everyone agrees will never be allowed to take place, pushing its impact beyond what even Mr. Bush asked.

The president is most vulnerable in this area and Democrats are betting heavily that the tax reductions will not do what Mr. Bush expects them to, trickle down to create jobs through new investment and result in at least a point or two of increase in the growth rate. At the same time, Democrats must remember that deficits don’t normally make great political issues — as Walter Mondale found out in 1984. Job losses and slow growth and reduced purchasing power register most heavily at the poles.

There is another factor. Democrats who decried the tax cuts as unfair and potentially disastrous really didn’t offer an alternative. It is the same omission that cost them last year’s midterm congressional elections. Meanwhile, Republicans have made gains charging their opponents with promoting class warfare. The president hailed the reduction as a major victory. He is right at the moment, despite the skepticism of some even in his own party. Whether he will be as enthusiastic a year from now remains to be seen.

Unlike his father, however, he won’t be accused of doing nothing and that itself is a plus for his political future.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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