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Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh, 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Daschle losing to Bush politically -- Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) may have merit on his side when he criticizes President Bush's economic policy, but so far he's losing the political argument - badly.

On the merits, Daschle was right to say in his speech at the Center for National Policy last week that Bush's $1.6 trillion tax cut is the biggest factor in the $3.7 billion projected drop in the government's 10-year budget surplus.

And he may have been right to say that the tax cut's upward pressure on long-term interest rates has worsened the recession, the next-biggest factor in the surplus decline.

But politically, Daschle dared not call for the repeal or delay of the tax cuts for which 12 Senate Democrats voted. Even so, Bush has been pummeling him as though he'd done so.

Indeed, the President accused Daschle of favoring tax increases and used the idea both to ridicule the Majority Leader's economic judgment and to memorably declare "not over my dead body will they raise your taxes." That line was a political winner.

On the merits too, elements of Daschle's short-term stimulus package have now been certified by the Congressional Budget Office as more likely to boost the economy out of recession than Bush's more permanent (and expensive) one.

Yet Daschle's refusal to permit a Senate vote on Bush's House-passed measure has opened him up to charges that he's an "obstructionist" who's blocking, among other things, unemployment benefits that he patently favors.

Daschle evidently scheduled his speech last Friday to counter the charges of "obstructionism" and make the case that he - now the nation's most visible Democrat and also a likely 2004 presidential contender - has a positive economic agenda for the nation.

The speech defined Daschle as a disciple of "fiscal discipline" who is not an opponent of tax cuts to stimulate business activity, a firm backer of homeland security measures and the war against terrorism, a free trader and an advocate of public investment in worker training, broadband communications, infrastructure and scientific research.

Daschle proposed two new stimulus ideas: a job-creation tax credit to reimburse employers for new payroll taxes and a depreciation bonus to cover new equipment purchases.

His advisers said the speech was targeted more at an "elite media audience" than at the public at large. Hence, Daschle attacked Bush's tax cuts more for their impact on long-term interest rates than their making it impossible to pay for popular programs such as a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

But if Daschle intended the speech to be serious and substantive - and, stylistically, it certainly was delivered that way - Bush picked it up, dragged it into the political arena and stomped on it to the merriment of his supporters.

Over the weekend and early this week, Bush made rich use of his presidential pulpit, and one Daschle adviser was forced to admit, "They do have a bigger megaphone than we do."

At town meetings in California and Oregon, Bush deftly segued from the patriotic themes of war on terrorism and national spirit to bipartisanship to economics, cloaking his entire program in a red, white and blue aura of national unity.

"The terrorists not only attacked our freedom but they also attacked our economy," he said. "And we need to respond in unison. We ought not revert to the old ways that used to dominate Washington, D.C. The old way is, what's more important, the country or my political party? I stand here as a proud party man, but let me tell you something, the country is far more important."

Bush came close to declaring that disagreement benefits the enemy, then cheerfully moved on to say how he was about to sign a landmark education bill in the company of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), proving his bipartisanship.

He defended his economic program by saying, "The principle I have been operating on is this: In tough times people need a check to help them when they're unemployed, but what they need in the long run is a paycheck."

Lampooning (and misquoting) Daschle, he said, "There are some in Washington saying that the tax cut caused the recession. I don't know what economic textbook they're reading. The best way to come out of a recession is to ... cut taxes [and] expand the job base in America."

Bush economic advisers also hit the talk-show circuit to accuse Daschle of favoring "huge" new spending programs, though the total would be less than the $214 billion in new tax cuts over 10 years that Bush favors.

According to one presidential political adviser, "Bush has such a well of trust going that his agenda is seen as America's agenda.

"And Daschle," this adviser continued, "is seen as the face of what America doesn't want - partisan bickering in Washington."

That's obviously the way Republicans want Daschle to appear. The top Senate Democrat's own pollsters say his favorable ratings outmatch his unfavorables by 2-to-1.

But Daschle doesn't have an 84 percent overall approval rating, as Bush does, or a 59 percent approval rating for his economic policy - even in the midst of a recession.

And as a Bush adviser put it, "Our bullhorn is bigger than his." And right now, Bush is using it masterfully.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.

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