The Washington Times

The electorate is not exactly in open revolt over the tax bite of the federal government, now at its highest level ever as a percentage of GDP. Taxes rank well down on the list of issues voters say they want politicians to address.

Does that mean that tax-cutting, traditionally one of the GOP’s most powerful weapons, has been permanently defused for this election cycle? One possible indicator is that the Democratic presidential aspirants have not felt a need to come forward with any proposals for tax cuts. Recall that Gov. Bill Clinton ran in 1992 on the promise of tax relief for the middle class – an important part of a general effort to portray himself as a “New Democrat” and thus to neutralize the GOP tax-and-spend rap on liberal democrats.

True, Mr. Gore has said he likes to think of himself as a tax-cutter and has attacked Mr. Bradley for failing to rule out tax increases. And Mr. Bradley’s ambitious health care reform plan calls not for the creation of a huge government bureaucracy to deal with the problem of the uninsured, but for a targeted tax credit. Still, neither man has felt compelled to speak up to counter this “Republican issue” a la Bill Clinton ’92.

This invites the conclusion that the Democratic nominee will be content simply to run against whatever the GOP nominee offers as a tax cut – on grounds that it’s just bad policy, and never mind a counterproposal. This strategy would necessarily be a product of a conclusion that the tax issue has so little political salience that it can be left entirely to the GOP, which will (in this reasoning) mainly embarrass itself by pursuing it. Democrats cite not only current poll evidence, but also the failure of 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole to get much traction from his proposal for a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut.

The 1996 case is indeed interesting. But Democrats ought to be careful about reaching the conclusion that their attack on Mr. Dole’s “risky tax scheme,” a phrase that still falls trippingly off Mr. Gore’s tongue in describing George W. Bush’s tax cut proposal, is what sunk the tax issue. The fact is that the Dole proposal came late in the day, from a candidate who had never made tax cutting a hallmark of his commitment to public service. The 1996 GOP effort on taxes was halting at best, and when it failed to quickly generate popular enthusiasm, the flighty campaign’s main impulse was to try something else.

If the Republican nominee is indeed going to run on tax cuts this time out, rejecting the Democratic conclusion that the issue has no trenchancy, there are some conclusions to be drawn from polls, the Dole experience, and the history of tax increases vs. tax cuts.

First, the case for tax cuts is not self-actualizing. One does not merely declare one’s support for them and wait for the applause to die down before moving on. Except for a small but obviously important segment of the party’s base vote, people aren’t necessarily leaping to their feet at the mention of the idea.

In short, people need to be sold. That means explaining, over and over again, what lower taxes will mean for the people getting them; it means tirelessly making a case that they are good for the government and for the economy; it means determinedly making a case that cutting taxes is the fair thing to do and the right thing to do. And if Democrats decide to deal with the issue solely by attack, then the GOP nominee must be ready with a defense on all points. It’s no good just decrying “class warfare” tactics when Democrats attack a tax cut as a boon to the rich. The Republican must find an answer to the charge that not only they but also those hearing the Democratic charge find convincing.

Second, an essential part of the sale will be for the GOP candidate to radiate absolute, invincible certitude on the issue. Politics is not for the tentative – especially in this case, when polls indicate that it will take some persuading to bring people around. The idea is to persuade people that the coming tax cut is a non-negotiable priority for the candidate, who has the indomitable will to see it through: Vote for Mr. X, and your taxes will decrease in the ways specified. Again, anything less invites people to draw the conclusion that the issue is just a matter of posturing – and cynicism is fatal to the issue, as Democrats know.

Third, the current political environment pits the impulse to cut taxes against the impulse to leave them the same. Missing is the impulse to increase taxes. It’s possible that the case for tax cuts does better when it is juxtaposed against the threat of tax increases. Now, the Democratic nominee is hardly going to oblige the Republican by putting forth a plan for a tax hike. The challenge for the Republican campaign will be to suggest that tax increases are a consequence of the Democrat’s vision of government. As of now on the GOP side, John McCain seems highly tentative in support of his tax cut. Steve Forbes’ pitch is based on the presumed ability of sweet reason to persuade, a view that serious salesmen, even ones selling good products, have long rejected. George W. Bush’s tax cuts, “So help me God,” the most memorable line of the GOP primary season so far, is a good start, but the candidate has yet to establish that below the surface lie depths of seriousness and conviction on the issue.

There is no guarantee that the tax issue will work for Republicans even if the conditions above are met. But there’s pretty good reason to think that if they aren’t met, Democrats win the issue handily.