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    Tax cut turns into Bush campaign's albatross

    By PHILIP GAILEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


    On what has become the signature issue of his presidential campaign -- a proposed $1.3-trillion across-the-board tax cut spread over 10 years -- George W. Bush stands virtually alone. And for a good reason.

    Many voters appear to be buying Al Gore's charge that the Bush tax cut could threaten the nation's economic prosperity and shortchange efforts to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Even Republican congressional candidates are distancing themselves from the Bush tax plan, sensing what the Texas governor has failed to recognize -- that the public would rather put the projected budget surpluses to other uses.

    Bush came out with his tax-cut proposal early in the primary season to blunt the issue Steve Forbes was riding in his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination. It may turn out to be the single biggest mistake of the Bush campaign. It has complicated Bush's attempts to compete with Gore's promises to use the budget surpluses to pay down the national debt, invest in education, offer Medicare recipients a prescription drug plan and protect Social Security -- all issues that most voters rate as more important than tax cuts.

    At this stage of the presidential campaign, Bush has little choice but to stick to his guns, even though the Republican nominee recently acknowledged that he was having a hard time selling his tax cuts to voters -- and not just because he sometimes confuses billions and trillions in trying to explain his plan. These days, Bush has taken to pulling four one-dollar bills from his pocket to represent the projected surplus. He holds up two dollars, which he says would go to protecting Social Security; a third would go to new programs such as increased military spending and a prescription drug program; and the fourth -- which he hands to someone in the audience -- would go back to taxpayers. Many voters still aren't convinced.

    Even congressional Republicans have adjusted to the new realities of tax-cut politics. Last year, Republican lawmakers made the mistake of pushing a tax-cut plan totaling $800-billion, well below the cost of the Bush proposal. After President Clinton vetoed the bill, Republicans found so little public support for the proposal they didn't even bother to try to override the veto. This year, instead of rolling out another omnibus tax-cut bill, House Republicans shrewdly broke their tax-cut proposals into smaller, bite-size pieces, mainly the repeal of the estate tax and the so-called marriage penalty. As expected, Clinton vetoed both measures, and Congress failed to override his vetoes. But this time Republicans at least got the consolation prize they wanted -- an issue to use against Democrats in the November elections.

    Bush, meanwhile, is struggling to convince voters that the surpluses will be large enough to do it all -- cut taxes for every taxpayer, fund a prescription drug plan, increase military spending, invest in education and shore up Social Security and Medicare. But he is not getting much backup from Republicans running for the House and the Senate. They express their philosophical support for lowering taxes, but they are offering smaller, more targeted tax breaks.

    In the U.S. Senate race in Florida, for example, Republican Bill McCollum is advocating the repeal of the estate tax and the marriage penalty, not the Bush plan that Democrats claim would disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. And in Ohio, Pat Tiberi, a Republican candidate for Congress, told the New York Times that voters were "not especially intrigued" by Bush's beneficence. "What I am hearing more about this year are specific things, and the two specific things I'm hearing a lot about are the death tax and the marriage tax."

    The debate over how to spend the nation's projected budget surpluses, which may or may not materialize, has become the main philosophical divide between the Bush and Gore campaigns. Gore's myriad spending proposals would more than swallow the surplus, but so far the polls suggest a majority of voters favor his priorities over Bush's.

    Someone in his Austin inner circle should have persuaded Bush to start downplaying -- even downsizing -- his big tax-cut proposal as soon as he had wrapped up his party's nomination. Bush's father came to regret breaking his defining promise to voters: "Read my lips, no new taxes." The son may come to regret hitching his presidential campaign to the tax issue. For George W. Bush, tax cuts may turn out to be a fatal attraction.

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