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Taxes No Longer Signal Political Kiss of Death : Politics: Bill Clinton seems to have pulled off something that mortally wounded George Bush. But does this sell the American people short?

March 07, 1993|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

The conventional wisdom in presidential politics is that tax increases are the political kiss of death. In 1984, Walter F. Mondale told the American people that a tax increase would be necessary to deal with the $70-billion budget deficit. He lost 49 states. In 1988, Bruce Babbitt told Americans that bitter medicine was necessary to address the failings of Reaganomics; he finished fifth in Iowa. Paul E. Tsongas was the bitter-medicine candidate in 1992, refusing to buy into Bill Clinton's middle-class tax cut; he got creamed on Super Tuesday. As a candidate the first time around, George Bush pledged to never raise taxes; he won. Four years later, after breaking his promise as part of a budget agreement intended to control the growth of the deficit, his apologies could not save his presidency.

If this axiom held, Clinton's economic program should be dead on arrival, and the President should be suffering for having proposed it. But the plan isn't dead, and Clinton is thriving. Every poll shows a majority of Americans supporting him, even though he's asking most of them, in no uncertain terms, to pay higher taxes to bring down the deficit.

To be sure, the Clinton economic program is far from being enacted. Defections among Senate Democrats may force the President to negotiate with Republicans to win a majority in that body. Spending cuts remain a sensitive question: Many willing to pay more also want to see the government spend less. Ultimately, the President may have to take as many risks on the spending side as he has on the revenue side if his program is to succeed. Even so, as of now, the President has fared better in selling his program than most professional observers thought possible. He is turning the lessons of history on their head and forcing the pundits to come up with a new explanation for his unconventional success.

The emerging view among political insiders is that the American people are supporting the President because he has waged such an effective campaign for his program. Certainly, that's part of it. The President and his team deserve a great deal of credit for the positive poll results. After a rocky start dominated by gays in the military and failed attorney-general nominations, the President has gone on the offensive, gotten out of the White House and gotten back to his game.

As a new President, Clinton begins with the advantage that the public is inclined to give him a chance. But that is hardly a guarantee of success, as Jimmy Carter discovered when his energy plan went nowhere. Clinton, by contrast, has built on the foundation of goodwill by going directly to the people.

The President has been selling his economic package in just the same way he sold himself so effectively last fall. As important as the visits with congressmen and the strong State of the Union have been, the campaign events inside and outside the Capitol, the multicity town meeting, the question-and-answer session with children. The Washington press corps may chafe because he's taking questions from local television hosts and selected average citizens instead of them, but it's working.

The obvious comparison is with Ronald Reagan, who sold his economic program in 1981 to America first and the Congress second. But Reagan's position was stronger, his mandate clearer and his package far sweeter than Clinton's--the comparison only highlights the magnitude of Clinton's accomplishment to date. Reagan, after all, won in a landslide; a majority of Americans may have wanted change in 1992, but they didn't vote for Clinton. Reagan's program could be seen as the fulfillment of his campaign pledges; Clinton's, at least as far as taxes go, is nothing less than a repudiation of his. Perhaps most significant, Reagan in his first months in office was selling candy to the middle class: pay less taxes and get a stronger defense to boot. Clinton, by comparison, is out there successfully selling cod liver oil, persuading Americans they must pay more and expect less.

But that is only half the story; the other half is that the people are proving themselves a whole lot smarter than most politicians give them credit for. As skillful as Clinton has been as the salesman President, his success says as much about America as it does about him.

Without ever saying so, conventional political wisdom doesn't have much respect for the intelligence of the American people. Implicit in the view that taxes are the kiss of death is a judgment that most Americans are selfish, shortsighted and easily manipulated. The emerging accepted wisdom, focusing almost exclusively on the skills of the President, suggests that there's almost nothing a good salesman can't sell America.

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