George W. Bush, with his $2.13 trillion budget, breezily proposes not only to take military spending back to Cold-War levels in his open-ended war on evil, but he also commits us to permanent tax cuts for his wealthiest benefactors. While he proposes to add $48 billion to the military budget to enable our armed forces to battle terrorists whose most formidable weapon so far has been box cutters, he would spend the Social Security and Medicare surpluses to bankroll nearly $2 trillion in tax cuts over the next 10 years that will send 40% of their benefits to the wealthiest 1% of US households. And his budget would leave no room for expansion of domestic spending programs such as health care for the working poor.
The White House was plainly dead wrong in its economic projections last year, when Bush assured Congress that it could pass tax cuts and keep the federal budget in the black. A year later, $4 trillion in projected surpluses have vanished and the budget is already bleeding, yet when Bush proposes even more tax cuts and says everything will be "OK," the pundits seem to accept his assurances unblinkingly. As Anthony York of Salon.com wrote Feb. 6, "the administration seems to be counting on Democrats to fold as quickly as the Taliban."
At one time the Democrats appeared ready to mount a populist challenge of the Bush plutocracy. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., seemed ready to take on Bush's tax cuts, in an aggressive speech to the Center for National Policy Jan. 4. "Unfortunately, last spring, Republicans chose exactly the wrong solution. They made a huge tax cut their No. 1 priority -- ahead of everything else -- and discarded the framework of fiscal responsibility," Daschle had said. "Sept. 11 and the war aren't the only reasons the surplus is nearly gone. They're not even the biggest reasons. The biggest reason is the tax cut. At a time when we need to fight both a war and a recession, when our nation has urgent needs on all fronts, the tax cut has taken away our flexibility and left us with only two choices, both of them bad."
Then Bush struck back, accusing the Democrats of mounting a "tax raise," and declaring, "Not over my dead body will they raise your taxes." The Democrats backed off. Daschle returned to the conservative strategy of defending the Social Security surplus and ignoring the disproportionate benefit of the budget's tax cuts toward the wealthy. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., devised the strategy of attacking the Bush budget from the right, arguing that it shorts defense.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., is one of the few Democrats who have attacked Bush's tax cut as a gift to the very wealthy that undermines the economic recovery and stalls needed new programs Bush himself has backed.
"In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we are facing major new demands on our national resources which must take priority," Kennedy said. "We cannot meet these demands and afford such an enormous tax cut without raiding Social Security and Medicare. Jeopardizing the security of millions of senior citizens to finance the full tax cut is not an acceptable price to pay. We cannot now afford the entire tax cut without ignoring critical national needs. Neglecting our children's education ... to finance this tax cut is not an acceptable price to pay. Yet, that is what the administration budget would do."
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the administration's new motto seems to be "Leave no defense contractor behind."
Some of the Democrats may be spooked by polling in 22 key congressional districts that shows Democrats trailing on a number of issues, particularly the war on terrorism. They also have seen their advantages disappear on a number of the party's bread-and-butter issues, such as improving education and protecting Social Security.
Ethan Wallison, in the Feb. 4 Roll Call, wrote that the poll has become a rallying point for centrists who argue that marginal Democrats are often hurt by their association with the party's national message insofar as it stresses traditional liberal themes such as gun control and abortion rights.
The poll also found the Republicans have made inroads into the contest for the Hispanic vote, which has been a growing part of the Democratic base. Some 45% of Hispanic respondents said there was at least a "fair chance" that he or she would vote Republican for Congress.
Democrats shouldn't let those poll results scare them away from framing their appeals in populist terms. Instead they should use Bush's budget to frame the issues as a battle of the interests of working people vs. the privileged class that Bush represents. As Bob Borosage writes on page 16, progressives must expose the yawning gulf between Bush's rhetoric and the plans passed by the Republican House and embraced by the Enron-compliant White House.
Recent polls also have found that while Bush remains tremendously popular, the public has doubts over whether Bush's tax cut plan is the right remedy for the ailing economy. When a Gallup Poll asked whether the budget should focus money on new tax cuts or increased government spending "on such things as benefits for recently unemployed workers and construction projects," 41% of the respondents called for tax cuts, while 46% called for more domestic spending. And a Los Angeles Times poll released Feb. 5 found that 80% of those surveyed also said they would rather cancel later stages of the Bush tax cut than tap the Social Security surplus.
People recognize that the White House is open to big business, not working people. The public knows Bush and Cheney are covering up their rewards to Enron and other corporate sponsors. Democrats must show they will stand up for the interests of working people or voters will continue to think "Well, at least Bush knows how to run a war."
A 15-mpg increase in USA motor fuel economy would let us tell the Persian Gulf potentates to kiss our exhaust pipes. But Bush refuses to ask Americans to make that effort. Instead, he follows his family's history of catering to dictators to enrich the family's business interests.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., staked out what could be one of his signature positions in a 2004 race for the presidency when he recently proposed the United States wean itself from oil dependency. He and Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., have written a bill to close the gap between standards set for passenger cars and light trucks and increase the combined standard to 35 mpg by the model year 2013.
Federal law requires each carmaker's fleet of new passenger cars to average 27.5 miles a gallon. Each fleet of light trucks -- sport utility vehicles, pickups and minivans -- is required to average 20.7 miles a gallon. Fuel economy standards have not changed since the 1980s.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., filed a similar bill to increase the standard to 36 mpg, but not until 2016. And companies could reduce that requirement by as much as 10% by swapping greenhouse gas credits with companies in other industries.
Though not as ambitious as those in the Kerry-Hollings bill, the New York Times noted coming from a leading Republican, McCain's bill was a setback for the auto industry, which has resisted any increase of current requirements. The Sierra Club estimates that the McCain bill would save 300,000 to 500,000 barrels of oil a day by 2012, while the Kerry-Hollings plan would save a million barrels a day. Stretching the mileage to 40 mpg would save the country nearly 3 million barrels a day. By contrast, an energy bill sought by the administration and passed by the House proposed savings of only 47,000 barrels a day in the second half of this decade. Cars in the US now consume about eight million barrels of oil a day, including about 1.5 million barrels from the Persian Gulf. We can do much better.
Call your Congress member at 202-224-3121. -- JMC