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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 1999 / 8 Teves, 5760

David Corn

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GOP Lies; Does Anyone Care? -- IT WAS JUST a few weeks ago that politics in Washington was defined by who was up and who was down in the budget battle. When all the hair-pulling and clawing was done, it seemed that congressional Republicans and President Clinton had battled to something of a draw.

The GOPers never obtained their tax cut for the rich, but they blocked Clinton’s move for a minimum-wage boost, Medicare drug benefits and a patient bill of rights. Clinton won $1.3 billion to hire new teachers and got nearly $1 billion for unpaid United Nations dues, but the Republicans got their way on gun control (i.e., no legislation) and shoved into the final deal a minuscule .38 percent spending cut.

Much of the budget wrangling occurred in the context of Social Security politics, with the Republicans daringly asserting that they could be trusted more than the Democrats to preserve the Social Security surplus (an opinion at odds with most polls on the subject), that their budget would not touch that surplus, though for years both parties have used the Social Security surplus to finance other government programs.

The Republicans—led in this effort by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay—were boldly trying to gain a strategic edge on an issue previously owned by the Democrats. Clearly, the GOP was looking ahead to the congressional races of 2000. They even aired television ads proclaiming they’d stopped Washington from “dipping into” the Social Security funds. When the final spending bills were passed, they crowed that they had made good on this promise. There was one problem: they hadn’t.

After members of Congress quickly left town, the Congressional Budget Office released a report showing that under the new budget the federal government would be running a deficit if Social Security funds were not counted and that $17 billion of Social Security money is slated to be spent on other programs.

Since budget-crunching isn’t nearly as fun as debating George W. Bush’s intelligence, the CBO report failed to spark much of a to-do. But as Stan Collender, who edits the Federal Budget Report newsletter, wrote, “Not only does the fiscal 2000 budget ‘dip’ into the Social Security trust fund, it actually does so to a far greater extent than in the previous year. So not only did Republicans make no progress toward their stated goal, but Congress’ own analysts show they actually went in the opposite direction. In other words, by the standards congressional Republicans themselves established for the budget debate, they failed.”

House Republicans challenged the CBO numbers. Apparently, their own analysts got it wrong. Nevertheless, Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts said that if the CBO figures prove accurate, then the Republicans would propose spending cuts next year to prevent any dipping. Right: This past year, they couldn’t get their own committee chairmen to agree to budget cuts. And imagine how much of a mess the Republicans would now be in had they achieved their tax cut. As the CBO report shows, they couldn’t have funded such a tax cut without using Social Security funds. At the end of the process, the Republicans wind up exactly where they promised they would not—as Social Security raiders.

Is this why House Republicans, when the subject turns to their electoral prospects in 2000, go into a Chicken Little routine? In recent weeks, they’ve been nervously clucking that they are in trouble in the coming elections. Control of the House—where the GOP maintains a small 5-seat margin—is in question. But it’s unlikely that the Democrats will win back the House via a thematic attack that relies on the Social Security card or any other part of the usual deck. A handful of races, one or two dozen, will determine the outcome, and most of these won’t be influenced by global, overarching themes. They will be determined by local factors.

In the happy days of the current economy, neither party will have an easy time constructing a message that nationalizes the congressional contests. The Republicans don’t have white-guy anger to exploit. The Democrats can no longer campaign as a bloc against that villain Newt Gingrich, and DeLay is not a sufficient substitute. But the Dems do have one tactical advantage over the Republicans. As of last week, 19 GOP members had announced their retirement next year, while only five Democrats had done so.

That means the Republicans are on defense. Sure, having George W. Bush or John McCain at the top of the ticket might be of help, if the Democratic congressional candidates have to run with a lackluster Al Gore. And DeLay, through all sorts of new fundraising schemes, is raising millions from corporate lobbyists for Republicans in tough races. But the GOP refrain remains defeatist to an inexplicable extent. Could it be a disinformation campaign to psych out the Democrats?

“We don’t know why they are so worried,” says one senior Democratic House aide. “It can’t be because of the budget fight and Social Security. But they are in a funk. It may be an extension of the frustration they have experienced trying to be the majority party. The numbers are not as bad as they are acting. I keep thinking—and hoping—that they must know something we don’t know.”

The Anti-Veep

USUALLY, WHEN a non-frontrunning presidential candidate surges, he’s bombarded with an obvious question: Will you settle for the vice presidential slot? Earlier this year, there was much chatter about a George W. Bush-Elizabeth Dole ticket for the Republicans. In recent weeks, various pundits have speculated that Sen. John McCain might be a good copilot for Bush.

While the Arizona Senator insists he is not interested in sidekickery, McCain-as-veep talk persists. After a recent GOP debate, NBC’s Tim Russert said, “Perhaps that’s a good ticket and that’s why [Bush and McCain] were embracing each other. John McCain said that George Bush was an attractive candidate. It was quite striking how these two men went out of their way to be kind to one another.”

A Bush-McCain merger would be a dream joint venture for GOPers, but it would pose McCain mighty difficulties. His campaign, he tells us, is about reform. He wants to rattle the Establishment. He is for ending big-money politics, for tossing the lobbyists out of the temple of Congress, for sending pork-barrel politics to the slaughterhouse. In a recent tv ad, McCain vows that if he is elected president he will “refuse to sign any pork-barrel bill that crosses my desk. And if Congress overrides my veto and tries to force me to waste your money, I’ll make sure you know who they are, every single one of them.” He’s promising to brand individual Republicans and Democrats with a scarlet P. That’s not how most presidents try to promote their agendas in Congress.

But what if McCain were residing not in the Oval Office but in the one-heartbeat-away cubicle? Say a Republican Congress sends President George W. Bush a goodies-loaded appropriations bill: Will Vice President McCain name names of those GOP legislators who swipe taxpayer dollars for their favorite projects? Would Vice President McCain decry all those corporate lobbyists who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into George W. Bush, Inc.? On the campaign trail, would McCain—as the vice-presidential nominee—still rail against big-money politics?

(This week, McCain is scheduled to hold an event with Democratic candidate Bill Bradley, where they would pledge not to raise soft-money contributions should each become his party’s nominee.)

As the GOP’s number-two man, McCain could not continue as a would-be reformer without indicting his boss and the Republican portion of the Establishment for which Bush fronts. To be Bush’s understudy, McCain would have to shudup and sacrifice what he claims are his most basic principles for position. In his anti-pork ad, a narrator pronounces McCain, “A man we can believe—and believe in.” If there’s any truth to that, McCain has no choice: he will be the party’s top gun or a noncombatant.

By the way, McCain recently released his medical records, which noted that his IQ is between 128 and 133. Do you think he hopes reporters ask Bush to make public the same information?

Chairman Jack?

AT THE Republican presidential debate in Arizona, robot-publisher Steve Forbes was quite nice to former congressman and ex-football star Jack Kemp. After pummeling Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for raising interest rates to hold back economic growth—both left and right agree on this criticism of Greenspan—Forbes said he’d consider tapping Kemp to be Greenspan’s successor. Talk about unsettling the markets.

Kemp’s stream-of-consciousness ways would truly contrast with the prudent, say-little talk of previous chairmen. What would Wall Street make of Kemp’s obsession with returning to the gold standard and his less-than-organized intellect? When he was Dole’s running mate in 1996, a source who had worked with Kemp when Kemp was secretary of housing in the Bush administration described him to me this way: “To know Jack, you have to see his desk. I’d go into his office and there would be documents and papers on his desk on Africa, the gold standard, ballistic missile defense, obscure economic theories, and whatnot. Nothing on housing, what he was supposed to be doing. His mind is like his desk.”

Since Forbes is more likely to end up a question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire than president, there is not much cause for Streeters to worry about Jack Kemp gaining control of the money supply. But what is interesting is that while Forbes has endorsed Kemp, Kemp has not endorsed Forbes. After all, Forbes used to chair Empower America, the group that Kemp started with self-proclaimed virtues czar William Bennett in the early 1990s. It was only after Kemp ducked the presidential race in 1996 that Forbes—listening to the importunities of Kemp fan and supply-side fanatic Jude Wanniski—threw his checkbook into the ring as a Kemp backup. But though Kemp and Forbes hail from the same ideological clubhouse, Kemp’s not publicly cheering on Forbes. Why not?

A source familiar with Kemp’s calculations reports that he’s waiting to see which Republican will snag the nomination before issuing any endorsement. Sounds like Kemp is a man badly in need of a job.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press ( His latest book is Deep Background.

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