The Washington Times

Down at the bottom of the front pages over the past few weeks, well below the war news, was the ongoing story of how President Bush’s tax cut proposal was faring on Capitol Hill. The administration, the story line ran, did fairly well in the House but ran into serious trouble in the Senate, where the defection of a couple Republicans enabled Democrats to cut the size of the tax cut essentially in half.

The president’s wartime popularity, the story continued, didn’t automatically entail support for his domestic policy proposals. A defiant Mr. Bush vowed to work diligently to increase the number approved by the Senate. The White House is now mounting a two-week national campaign, including numerous appearances by Mr. Bush and senior officials, to try to win support for a tax cut larger than the one the Senate approved.

It’s a good story, and it’s a true story, but it is not a story rich in context. I’d like to add some.

Let’s start with the basics: It is highly likely that at the end of the day, Mr. Bush is going to get a tax cut through Congress this year of at least $350 billion, the amount the Senate approved. The only direction the number is likely to move as the politicking proceeds is up. Now, the subtext of the narrative of the past few weeks has been that Mr. Bush’s tax cut is in trouble. To this one must say: If this is failure, what would success look like?

Mr. Bush sought a $726 billion tax cut over 10 years. Now, to be sure, had Congress simply gone along and passed what he proposed, that would indeed count as a great victory. But it does not follow from the proposition that $726 billion is victory that $350 billion [or some number larger than that] is defeat. Bear in mind that overwhelming majority sentiment in the Democratic Party, in Congress and in the activist base, is dead set against lowering top rates on fairness grounds, and the same goes for dividends. A significant part of the party, probably a solid majority, is against any tax cut at all, either to reduce ballooning deficits or out of a sense that more spending is necessary in areas ranging from homeland security to social services.

Moreover, those deficits really are ballooning. It is also a time of war, with U.S. forces occupying Iraq and with a covert intelligence war still going on against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Wars are expensive, and in the past, wartime presidents have often asked people to sacrifice, which they have done out of duty. Accepting a tax cut isn’t a part of this tradition. Moreover, Iraq will need to be rebuilt, and the added costs there are still unclear. Besides which, we still have serious long-term trouble with the solvency of Medicare [atop political pressure to make the program more expensive by providing prescription drug coverage]. And Social Security remains an unfunded government liability ranging to the trillions.

Now, I would submit that under these conditions, the easiest thing to do on taxes from the point of view of Washington politics would be nothing. A different Republican administration and any likely Democratic administration would surely have taken that course. In those hypothetical Democratic administrations, moreover, there would likely be advisers urging the president to expend some political capital by asking Americans to sacrifice and accept a tax increase. Taking such advice would indeed be risky, as political sentiment in Washington for tax increases expired with the election of a GOP Congress in 1994, itself in part a product of a backlash against the Clinton administration’s tax increases of 1993.

But Mr. Bush is not a take-it-easy kind of guy. He and his advisers seem to understand the Washington sentiment on taxes very well. It is that if he pushes, he gets a fight, but he gets a tax cut. He is willing to take the political risk of the fight in pursuit of that end itself an indication of just how important Mr. Bush thinks tax cuts are to higher economic growth over time. Correctly or not, he is truly committed to this view, because if he were not, he could avoid the fight easily by standing pat.

And that, too, provides context. We’ve won the war, as George H.W. Bush won a Gulf War. But rather than busying itself organizing victory parades, this Bush administration has moved on, throwing itself into the domestic agenda, the tax cut.

The facile comparison is that Mr. Bush 41 won his war but lost reelection when the economy headed down, so Mr. Bush 43 [whose postwar popularity didn’t even rise as high] could just as easily be undone. I think that misreads the circumstances of Mr. Bush 41. It wasn’t just that the economy went sour. It was also that Mr. Bush 41 didn’t seem to think he could do much about it and presented himself accordingly.

The second President Bush doesn’t believe that. If he goes down, it will be swinging.