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COLUMN RIGHT / TOM BETHELL : Bush Ignores an Obvious Opening : Clinton promises a tax increase, but does Bush attack?

July 27, 1992|TOM BETHELL | Tom Bethell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution

The consensus is that Bill Clinton is now in a good position to capture the White House. Perhaps, but it's worth looking at one of his more important policy proposals, which suggests at first sight a serious miscalculation. He has promised to raise taxes.

Walter Mondale made the same promise in 1984. So did the British Labor Party last spring. Ahead in the polls, Labor lost the election in the midst of a recession, after 13 years of Conservative rule. "One of the main reasons for its defeat was a campaign promise to raise tax rates on higher income," columnist Anthony Lewis reported from London at the time. He added: "The defeat has persuaded many in the party that it must shed the last remnant of its ideology."

Clinton did not make the mistake of advertising his promise in his acceptance speech, the way Mondale did. He merely said that "the rich"--defined as those earning more than $200,000 a year--will be asked to pay their "fair share." And he attacked President Bush for having "raised taxes on the people who drive pickup trucks and lowered taxes on people who ride in limousines." (Actually, Bush raised taxes on everyone. It was Reagan who reduced tax rates on the rich.)

For a variety of reasons, Clinton may be vulnerable here. When asked if his tax-the-rich promise meant that the rest of us would be safe, Clinton equivocated. He told Time magazine: "It would not be fair for you to say I'm running on a read-my-lips pledge just because I'm in principle opposed to raising taxes on the middle class." He added that Bush had made "a terrible mistake" in promising no new taxes.

Raising tax rates on the rich is unlikely to raise much revenue. It might even lose it, given the possibilities of tax shelters. Punishing the rich does appeal to envy, but this can misfire in elections. It discourages those who would like to become rich. There are more of these than liberals imagine. Clinton has now given them warning that they can reasonably expect their taxes to be raised, too.

The feckless Ross Perot, it turns out, was also planning to raise our taxes: 50 cents a gallon on gasoline and an indeterminate amount on the incomes of "the wealthiest Americans." His tax plans have been praised by Charles L. Schultze of the Brookings Institution--"If you are serious about balancing the budget, then there will have to be big tax increases"--and by a Democratic pollster, Geoffrey Garin. He discerns a "constituency in the country" for "taking the bitter medicine."

All of this would seem to leave a rather obvious opening for George Bush. Then, of course, we recall that he rather embarrassingly fell into the tax trap himself in 1990. Having promised not to raise taxes, he worked out a "deal" with congressional leaders to change his mind. He imagined that this would put him in a position to take credit, by about the fall of 1992, for narrowing the budget deficit. It has now dramatically widened, to $400 billion.

Bush is now in the position of a gladiator who is walking onto the field of combat, but has already discarded his most important weapon. This, he seemed to imagine, would make him look kinder and gentler. If that doesn't make any obvious political sense, then welcome to the councils of moderate Republicanism. Bush is the man who was put on the GOP ticket in 1980 because he would make Ronald Reagan more electable, remember.

What has Bush actually said about Clinton's economic program? In a Rose Garden talk the other day he said: "I think we've got to get the deficit down. I don't think you need to go raise taxes on people right now. I think that's a big mistake. I think it's counterproductive." No stirring call to battle there. And notice that ominous "right now." It sounds as if he is planning to raise our taxes once again, but not right away. But how about, say, the summer of 1993?

Bush is in trouble because there is nothing that can now undo his crucial error. In his State of the Union address this year, he used "this-shall-not-stand" rhetoric against Congress, calling on them to cut the capital-gains tax by March. If he had won this battle, his old Reaganite supporters would be happy to overlook his earlier mistake; and his reelection might now be assured. But Congress outwitted him, and the deadline passed without comment. Now it is too late for congressional action.

Bush is reduced to words at this point, but it is difficult to see how he can make them persuasive. He showed such disdain for his old promises that new ones will be hollow. Clinton may indeed win, then, despite the baggage of tax increases. Thanks to Bush's ineptness, the Democrats, unlike Labor, may not have to shed their ideology: not a happy prospect for the country.

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