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.

Even this doesn’t go far enough for conservatives, who invariably greet such proposals with the complaint that the tax code should not reward particular behavior, no matter how socially desirable (in fact, particularly if it‘s socially desirable). Conservatives believe the tax code should reward not behavior but conditions, and the condition it should reward most is that of being rich.

The irony here is that the Democrats’ own pollsters are telling them that the method of combating the recession that the public supports most is public-works programs. In the December 17 issue of The American Prospect (an excellent magazine; check it out), former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg reports on the results of a nationwide poll and some 23 focus groups he conducted in the months following September 11, and notes that the American public seems to have entered a wartime-only, collectivist, ”we‘re-in-this-together“ frame of mind. By a margin of 54 percent to 39 percent, Americans preferred what the polling called the Democratic proposal — delaying the tax cut and using the money to fund Social Security, post–September 11 rebuilding, increasing aid to the unemployed and funding for education — to the Republicans’ proposal for further tax cuts to businesses to help create jobs. (Somehow, Daschle‘s proposal sounds closer to the GOP model in Greenberg’s question than it does to the ”Democratic“ program.) Asked which of a series of individual proposals for jump-starting the economy they backed, Greenberg‘s respondents gave their highest level of support (85 percent) to extending unemployment benefits and to constructing public projects.

Since Greenberg presented his findings to the congressional Democratic caucuses, the Hill Democrats can hardly plead ignorance of public opinion as a justification for their breathtaking timidity. Still, some say they’d like to see the polling on these questions in this year‘s swing districts; and others doubtless fear the effect of W.’s baiting them for being big-government taxers. Indeed, beginning with his speech in Ontario last Saturday, the Dub has already begun to bait them for exactly that, even though Daschle, his baitee, specifically vowed not to raise taxes. But then, a man who didn‘t let the preference of the voters stand between him and the White House is hardly going to be stopped from attacking the Democrats simply because they have eschewed the position for which he’s attacking them.

Nor does that exhaust W.‘s new reign of innuendo. By vowing that the only route to a repeal of the tax cut lies over his dead body, the president is subliminally equating a tax repealer to a terrorist, perhaps even to the Evil One himself. That W. somewhat mangled the line (”not over my dead body,“ he tooted) doesn’t mean that this association wasn‘t premeditated.

So the dynamic of the coming election year is beginning to unfold. In the mind of W., the Democrats pose a threat to Republican economics, want to roll back last year’s grotesque tax cut, and favor putting people on public payrolls to build needed public projects. Would that the real Democrats were half so good.

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