The Washington Times

There’s nothing quite like an extra trillion dollars in budget surpluses to lubricate our political system for a tax cut. Still, given the current balance of power and interest between the White House and Congress, it will be a wonder if this actually is enough.

Of taxes and President Clinton, one may say several things with confidence: First, he has things he would rather do with the money. These include spending in new areas, such as an expansion of Medicare to include prescription drug coverage, and beefing up existing programs.

The programs’ needs do not drive this calculation, however. If they did, Mr. Clinton could just say how much money he requires. This he has no reason to do, because he would then be establishing the ceiling for money available for programs. Under those circumstances, the GOP would have a claim on anything and everything left over for tax-cutting. Mr. Clinton’s position will always be that our needs (government’s needs) are ever-present. He will thereby make Republicans bargain hard for every last dollar diverted to tax cuts.

Second, Mr. Clinton has little reason to give Republicans anything like the kind of tax cut they would want. He can and will deploy rhetoric decrying plans that are unduly generous to “the rich,” and as always, he will define that term at a far lower income level than Republicans would like. Complain as they do about the “rhetoric of class warfare,” Republicans know, in their hearts, that it works for Mr. Clinton, for the simple reason that they are afraid to confront him on the point.

Third, Mr. Clinton has his eye on his legacy. “Enacted a major tax cut” is not the first thing on his list, however. He already gets plenty of grief from the left wing of his party for the distance he has traveled rightward so far. Some liberals are perfectly happy to refocus their political project on such matters as the environment and sprawl. But others are wondering just what happened to Democrats’ traditional concern for America’s poorest and most disadvantaged. A tax cut will further anger this still consequential wing of the Democratic Party.

If Mr. Clinton is going to sign a tax cut, therefore, it is not going to be out of some sudden affection for tax cuts in and of themselves. It will be for strategic reasons. Mr. Clinton will concede on tax cuts only to seal in substantial, legacy-enhancing victories on programs – reserving until the ink hits the paper the prospect of turning around and denouncing the whole enterprise as a grotesque scheme by Republicans to reward their rich friends while ignoring the real needs of middle-class Americans.

One other consideration may be germane here. Mr. Clinton does emphatically want his legacy to include the election of Al Gore as his successor. It’s likely that 2000 electoral considerations will guide the timing of his actions. One may calculate this variously, but by my reckoning, I don’t see what good Mr. Clinton’s signing a tax cut does Mr. Gore this year. Next year is another story.

Clearly, the GOP nominee in 2000 will run as an advocate of tax cuts. Equally clearly, this will not be Mr. Gore’s favorite topic of conversation on the campaign trail. If Mr. Clinton signs a tax cut this year – especially if the economy keeps chugging along, yielding yet another upward revision in projected government revenue – the GOP will be back for another tax cut next year. The issue will therefore be front and center for the campaign (unless, and this seems unlikely, Mr. Clinton is prepared to go along with two major tax cuts in as many years – in which case, who needs Republicans to cut taxes?). Mr. Gore does not want a tax cut to be front and center.

Mr. Clinton might find it more politically advantageous this year to pull the football out of the way just as the GOP is kicking, then return to the subject next year. Congressional Republicans, for their part, will be eager to pocket a tax cut as an achievement to run for re-election on; and Mr. Clinton will be able to defuse the issue politically for Mr. Gore.

The model here is the GOP Congress’ willingness to pass once again and Mr. Clinton’s willingness at last to sign the twice-vetoed welfare reform bill just before the 1996 election. The GOP presidential nominee, Bob Dole, didn’t like that decision a bit. But by then, congressional Republicans had reached the conclusion that the Dole campaign was a lost cause and were looking for an accomplishment to help them hang on to their majority.

Republicans would be similarly tempted in spring 2000 regardless of where George W. Bush (or any other potential nominee) stands in the polls. Mr. Gore will then be in a position to run (softly) on the Clinton-Gore record of cutting taxes while urging simple prudence before rushing off to cut taxes again.

Congressional Democrats angling to recapture the House may not like the idea of a 2000 tax cut. But then again, they never like tax cuts. They didn’t like welfare reform either. And for Mr. Clinton, for now, the election of Mr. Gore is still probably a higher priority.