PEORIA, Ill. — George W. Bush now knows why they're called taxes: because trying to explain them this week has seriously taxed the Republican presidential nominee's rhetorical abilities.
In a two-day verbal saga that started late Monday in Des Moines and continued here Tuesday, Bush decided to offer a detailed explanation of the $1.3-trillion, 10-year tax cut that forms the foundation of his presidential bid.
The backdrop: recent opinion polls that show voters increasingly believe Vice President Al Gore is better equipped to manage the economy than Bush--a post-political convention flip-flop--and Gore's criticism that Bush can't both cut taxes and create programs. Bush insists he can.
But maybe it was the late hour. Or the Bush clan's well-documented verbal curse. But the more the Texas governor talked--sometimes confusing billions with trillions in a rambling speech--the more puzzled the audience looked at a $210,000 Des Moines fund-raising dinner.
"Between now and the next 10 years, our budget's going to grow from roughly $1.9 billion to an additional spending of $1.9 trillion to an additional spending of $3.3 trillion," Bush began. "That's before we even account for the surplus.
"We will spend $3.3 trillion over the next 10 years on top of a $1.9-trillion budget. We've still got trillions of dollars left of the surplus, and surely we can give some of the money back to the people who pay the bills. Surely, surely we can."
It was an evening of verbal quicksand--Bush also vowed not to let "terrorists or rogue nations hold our nation hostile or hold our allies hostile," and Tuesday wasn't much better, no matter how much Bush and the campaign tried to fix things.
Before taking off from Des Moines to talk about his education proposals in Illinois and Missouri, Bush sauntered back in the campaign plane and tried to explain just what he was getting at.
"I've got to do a better job of making it clear," he told reporters, "that starting with a baseline of about $1.9 trillion in the next 10 years, the budgets will increase by about $3.3 trillion. And yet we've still got another $2.3 trillion of surplus."
Got that? Neither did the press corps. A few hours later, Scott McClellan, a campaign spokesman, tried to clear up the mathematical muddiness during an airport rally here. He couldn't.
Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who warmed up the crowd at an airport rally here before introducing Bush, didn't help matters when he described Bush's tax cut plan as "very ambitious" but that many Americans might find it "problematic."
When asked by reporters whether voters have an appetite for a big tax cut--polls have shown that they do not--LaHood replied: "I think they're thinking about it. I think they're still trying to figure it out."
Flying from Peoria to St. Louis, Bush communications director Karen Hughes took a crack at explaining Bush's taxing explanation--after first insisting that Tuesday on the Bush campaign trail was really about education.
In fact, Tuesday was a rare slip for the disciplined Bush campaign, which has come this far by staying studiously on message for more than a year. But not this day.
This day, inadvertently, was taxes. And what Bush was trying to say, Hughes told reporters, is that the current federal budget is about $1.8 trillion. Over the next 10 years, inflation and expansion of existing government programs will cost $3.3 trillion more.
But at the same time, the federal budget surplus will be an estimated $4.6 trillion. If Bush were president, half of that surplus would go to save and secure Social Security. And $1.3 trillion more would go to the tax cut. And that would leave just under $1 trillion for programs covering everything from education to improving military housing.
"The point the governor was making is that, when the Democrats claim that by offering a tax cut you are cutting services, that is just simply not true," Hughes said.
Bush couldn't have said it better himself.