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Jewish World Review Dec. 18, 2001 / 3 Teves 5762

Morton Kondracke

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Consumer Reports

Delay or repeal tax cuts? -- TOP Congressional Democrats believe more than ever that President Bush's tax cuts were too large, but there's no agreement on whether to call for their delay or repeal.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., advocated delaying the cuts last Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," and a group of centrist House Democrats earlier called for repealing cuts for the top 1 percent of taxpayers.

But top House and Senate leaders haven't sounded the same theme as of yet, and there's disagreement among the party's leading pollsters and strategists over whether they should.

In January, the Congressional Budget Office is expected to estimate that the projected 10-year budget surplus, thought a year ago to be $5.6 trillion, will be down to less than $2 trillion.

Democrats declared from the outset that Bush's $1.6 trillion in tax cuts ate up too much of the old estimated surplus and crowded out other priorities, such as debt reduction, a prescription drug benefit for all seniors, and aid for persons without health insurance.

Now, led by Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., Democrats are saying "We told you so" with conviction, and others, led by House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., are accusing Bush of "mismanaging the economy" and diminishing the huge surplus.

The "we told you so" mantra makes abundant sense. "Mismanagement" makes less sense because $2 trillion of the $3.6 trillion surplus decline resulted from an economic downturn that began before Bush took office and was exacerbated by the Sept. 11 attacks, which also necessitated huge new expenditures for fighting terrorism.

Besides expecting that a weak economy will help them in next November's elections, Democrats are fiercely resisting new GOP plans to cut taxes even more as an economic stimulus, which would drain the surplus by an additional $274 billion over 10 years.

But, so far, Democratic leaders have not been willing to follow Clinton in calling for the full or partial repeal of Bush's original tax cut. Moreover, Democratic strategists differ over whether that's good politics.

Last week, populist liberals James Carville, Bob Shrum and Stan Greenberg reiterated their argument that calling for delay or repeal of tax cuts would help Democrats in the 2002 elections.

In a new poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted Dec. 2-4, they reported, 37 percent favored delaying the President's tax cuts, 18 percent supported canceling them and 38 percent said they should be phased in according to the plan.

When a hypothetical Democratic candidate arguing for canceling tax cuts for those making more than $325,000 a year was matched up against a Republican calling for further tax cuts, the Democrat won by 56 percent to 38 percent, according to the poll.

On the other hand, former Clinton White House pollster Mark Penn, in a survey conducted for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, found voters unenthusiastic about canceling the tax cuts.

In a poll of 800 registered voters conducted in late November, Penn found that by 59 percent to 36 percent, respondents said Bush's tax cuts should be left in place, althou

gh by 51 percent to 48 percent they favored a rollback to avoid pushing the federal budget back into deficit. "I would not run the election on the theme of rolling back the tax cuts," Penn said at a breakfast session with reporters. According to one top Democratic Congressional aide, a third view on the matter is held by pollsters Geoff Garin and Mark Mellman, who do surveys for House and Senate Democratic leaders.

Citing no poll numbers, this aide said Garin and Mellman contend that Democrats would be vulnerable to Republican attack as "tax raisers" if they called for the cancellation of Bush's cuts and wouldn't be able to get the delays passed anyway because of GOP resistance and a likely White House veto.

It's virtually certain that Republicans would charge that Democrats are "the tax party" and also would argue that, as White House political chief Karl Rove said at a conference Tuesday, "Canceling the tax cuts would be the worst possible thing you could do at a time of economic weakness."

House Republicans, indicating that they are worried about their 2002 election prospects, came forward this week with a scaled-back stimulus package that might attract centrist support, but it still contained accelerated rate reductions unacceptable to Daschle.

So who's winning on the tax/economic issue? Even Greenberg admits that only 18 percent of voters blame Bush's tax cuts for the decline in the budget surplus and that voters are split, 44 percent to 43 percent, on whether they plan to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress next year.

On the other hand, Penn reported that voters trust Congressional Republicans over Democrats to get the economy moving again by a margin of 8 points and to maintain fiscal discipline by 9 points. The President's margin over Democrats is even wider on those issues.

Penn found that, by 41 percent to 36 percent, voters would prefer to have a Republican as president, but by 44 percent to 36 percent, they'd like Democrats to control Congress.

He thinks that Democrats should run in 2002 offering themselves as "a check" on Bush. That sounds right to me.

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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