By Dick Morris
June 07, 2003
As he desperately tried to head off Bill Clinton in 1992, President George H.W. Bush could not use his best weapon - the tax issue - to defend his incumbency. Although Clinton's record of tax increases in Arkansas offered an attractive target, Bush's reversal of his 1988 campaign pledge - "read my lips - no new taxes" - left him unable to make the likelihood of a Clinton tax increase the key issue in the campaign. His failure to do so cost him the presidency.
Now, President George W. Bush has skillfully - even brilliantly - maneuvered events to the point where taxes will be front and center in the 2004 presidential contest. Oddly, it is not by his success that he accomplished that goal but rather by his failure.
Had Bush gotten the full $750 billion 10-year tax cut he originally sought, that massive achievement would have left him without an issue. What would he say in the '04 contest? "I've cut taxes by $2 trillion. Vote for me and I'll make it $2.5 trillion"? Such a line would hardly have driven the multitudes to the barricades. Even the threat that the Democrats would repeal the tax cut should they take over would be too vague and nebulous to have anchored a reelection bid.
But happily for himself, Bush didn't succeed and got less than half of his tax cut - about $350 billion. Wisely, Bush chose to front-load the half a loaf so that its stimulating effect (economically and politically) could be felt this year. Brilliantly, he gave the Democrats a sunset provision that made the tax cuts expire early in his second term.
So now, the issue on the table for the 2004 elections will be how the Democratic candidates will deal with the sunset of the tax cuts. The Democrats will have to say whether they will continue the tax cuts or terminate them. Then Bush will turn their answers around and accuse them of planning to raise taxes!
Passing a tax cut likely draws the active support of 25 to 30 percent of the voters. Canceling one already in place probably gins the number up to the high 40s or low 50s. But opposition to a tax increase, which will be the basis of the Bush campaign, gets your support up into the 70s and 80s.
The last man to try to run for president advocating a tax increase was Walter Mondale. He lost 49 states in 1984, and the "I'll raise your taxes" reputation haunted him all the way to Minnesota last year, where he lost his 50th state in the Senate election.
The Democrats no doubt are thrilled that they have "won" the numbers game by more than halving Bush's tax cut. But now Bush can have his cake and eat it, too. He pockets the votes of the 25 million people who get refunds of $400 or more in the mail this summer. He benefits from the stimulating effect of a retroactive cut in capital gains taxes, dividend taxes and taxes on earned income. And, he sets up a huge issue for himself and a challenge to the Democrats for the '04 contest.
Any Democrat who squirms on the tax-cut issue in the primaries has no chance - zero - to win the nomination. Each will have to take the "pledge" to oppose the Bush tax cuts. Thus, Bush will have succeeded in creating a situation where anyone who can win the nomination can't win the election. Democrats are not about to nominate anyone who backs the tax cut, and Americans are not going to elect anyone who favors a tax increase.
That all of this has been accomplished while letting the Democrats have their "victory" makes it so much sweeter. In the political war colleges of America, they should diagram this play like a well-fought battle students can study for generations. Napoleon's maneuvers at Austerlitz have nothing on this.
Dick Morris is a political
consultant, commentator and best selling author. Look for Dick's
newest book, "Power Plays" available now.
Copyright 2003 Dick Morris
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