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Davis' Taxing Clintonian Language

January 10, 2002|DAN SCHNUR | Dan Schnur was communications director for former Gov. Pete Wilson and the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain. Last summer, he advised Richard Riordan's gubernatorial exploratory committee.

Gray Davis never had sex with that woman. He never inhaled. And he definitely "will not advocate raising taxes"--at least not until someone asks him to.

Davis has the misfortune of facing a nasty economic recession and state budget meltdown just as he is preparing to run for reelection. So when he delivered his annual State of the State address Tuesday night, it would have been reasonable to expect California's governor to lay out a path toward economic recovery.

But solving a $12-billion budget deficit is a politically painful experience, and an election year is definitely not the time for political pain, especially for an incumbent governor already running behind in the polls.

There are three ways to solve a budget deficit: cut spending, raise taxes or run deficits, none of which are particularly pleasing to voters. Faced with a choice between three unpopular courses of action to kick off his reelection campaign, Davis chose to ignore economic and fiscal reality, instead proposing spending increases in several state government programs. He also promised not to raise taxes.

Or did he? During his address, Davis declared, "The budget I will submit to you ... will not raise taxes." A few minutes later, for emphasis, he added, "I will not advocate raising taxes."

At first glance, that sounds a lot like a promise. But to a political community well-schooled in the art of Clintonian linguistic gymnastics, Davis' statements sounded much less convincing. Upon further discussion, it appears that Davis has not ruled out signing a budget that includes a tax increase. He just won't propose one himself. But if someone else wants to raise taxes? Well, that's a different story.

State Senate Democratic leader John Burton last week engaged in a bout of political nostalgia by announcing his support for more than $9billion in new taxes. Whether Davis will support some or all of those taxes is anyone's guess. All we know is that he'll let someone else lead the fight. Maybe he'll follow. Or maybe he won't.

So Davis, an expert politician miscast as a governor, will submit a campaign pamphlet disguised as a budget proposal today and then allow others to put together an alternative that will form the starting point for actual negotiations.

Then it will be left to others to make the hard decisions needed to get California's economic house back in order.

Stepping back from the leadership demands of his office may not qualify Davis for an additional chapter in "Profiles in Courage." But he remembers the budget fights of the early 1990s when then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, fought with the Legislature to close budget gaps of $14 billion and $10 billion. He also remembers that both Wilson and the legislators saw their poll numbers plummet to subterranean levels. Less than 10 months from election day, Davis is not eager to experience that sensation for himself.

But even if he is unwilling to lead, it will be impossible for Davis to avoid getting splashed by the muck from the inevitable budget brawl.

Republican gubernatorial candidates will be firing at him from the campaign trail.

At the same time, Davis will be the target of more dangerous attacks from Burton and other Democratic leaders, who will be reluctant to provide votes for any budget that doesn't include significant tax increases.

Although all the participants will suffer as the negotiations progress, Davis' visibility means that he will endure the overwhelming share of the political pain. The cumulative effect of months of unflattering news coverage cannot be overestimated. Daily headlines that talk of tax increases, budget cuts and deficit spending pack a wallop that no negative advertisement or direct mail attack can match.

And make no mistake: The news coverage will be very, very ugly. Because when dealing with budget deficits of this size, the question is no longer whether to take your poison. Rather, the decision facing Davis is which poison to take.

For eight years, Bill Clinton dissected the English language with surgical precision. It's a testament to Clinton's considerable skills that only after he left office could we appreciate his dexterity by watching other, less talented politicians fail in their attempts to match his extraordinary verbal feats.

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