By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The Democrats have issued their program for 2002, and, as proclaimed by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle last Friday, it is one resounding peep. Woe unto us, the Democrats cry, for the tax cuts have undone us (the ”us“ in question here isn‘t the Democrats -- at least, not initially -- but the American people). These pernicious cuts keep us from paying down the debt, from needed social programs, even from more effective homeland-security measures. We (the Democrats) don’t actually propose to do anything about them, but aren‘t they just awful?
They are indeed; Daschle’s attack was right on the mark. ”At a time when we need to fight both a war and a recession,“ he said, ”the tax cut has taken away our flexibility and left us with only two choices, both of them bad. We can shortchange critical needs, such as homeland defense, or we can raid the Social Security surplus -- and even run deficits -- to pay for these critical needs.“
Daschle‘s bill of particulars didn’t end there. The primary beneficiaries of the cut, he continued, are the wealthiest Americans, the group least likely to go out and spend their newfound fortune. What‘s more, the specter of looming deficits has kept interest rates higher than they otherwise would have been, creating yet one more obstacle to an economic recovery.
But trenchant as this criticism may have been, it was all a tease. After laying the groundwork for rolling back or at the least delaying the tax cut, Daschle discreetly changed the subject. In the annals of modern American politics, I cannot recall a more glaring omission. This is Hamlet, not minus the prince, but minus the resolution. Something’s rotten in Denmark, and Daschle asks no more of us than to stand around and smell it.
There are reasons, to be sure, for the majority leader‘s reticence. To begin with, 12 of his more boneheaded Democratic colleagues actually voted for these cuts when they came before the Senate last spring. Most of these legislative titans came from states that President Bush had carried; a faint justification of realpolitik clung to their votes. One -- our own, execrable Dianne Feinstein -- came from a state where Bush’s domestic program was about as popular as reinstating Prohibition; there was no realpolitik justification whatever for DiFi‘s dalliance with this most disastrous piece of legislation since Reagan’s tax cut of 1981.
There‘s a war on now, of course, and many of those 12 Democratic lulus might switch their votes if the tax cut came up for review. But not enough of them, necessarily, to ensure repeal, or even alteration. (They’d need to find a dozen Republicans, moreover, to override a Bush veto, but the real issue here, as election season looms, is whether the Democrats can take a stance.) Those in marginal states may fear being labeled as taxers-and-spenders by their GOP opponents as the midterm elections approach. And even those who harbor no such fears for themselves are still cognizant that they go into the elections with just a one-vote majority in the Senate. None of them is more cognizant of this than Daschle himself, who must at minimum preserve the Democrats‘ tenuous margin.
A similar dynamic is at work in the House, where the Dems enter 2002 needing to win just half a dozen seats to clamber back into the majority. Again, the seats in play are a relative handful of swing districts, a fact that instills caution even in the most liberal of legislators. Recently, one particularly feisty member a 20 of the Progressive Caucus -- the political home of the most left-leaning members of the House -- came to her colleagues in a closed-door meeting with a proposal to defer the tax cuts until the debt was paid down and universal health care established (that is, for all practical purposes, until forever and a day). Her fellow progressives instantly saw the merits of her proposal, but they did not rush to embrace it. With only a smattering of seats standing between them and control of the House, they feared its effect on Democratic challengers in those precious few marginal districts.
Thus closeness doth make cowards of them all.
Even among those Democrats calling for rolling back the cut, the most notable feature of their proposal is often its fiscal conservatism. To their credit, centrist Democrats like Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin have said that Congress should consider repealing the cut, but all they want to do with the resultant revenue is to resume paying down the debt. With the number of medically uninsured Americans rising and with our emergency public-health system in demonstrable disarray, you’d think Democrats might recognize more pressing needs than debt retirement. But this is the heyday of social needs -- not social programs.
Indeed, the anti-recessionary government program that Daschle actually did unveil in his speech last week was not really a government program at all. Rather, Daschle called for a tax credit for employers who create new jobs. This is not only a roundabout but also an inefficient way to generate jobs -- compared, say, to boosting spending on school construction or transportation infrastructure (projects that also may just be socially desirable in themselves). But then, the whole point of Daschle‘s proposal was to endeavor to put people back to work without incurring the risk of being labeled a spender.