Twenty years after they last tried it, Democrats are seizing the tax issue to attack a popular president, a risky strategy aimed at turning a long-standing liability into a political asset.
The effort by the party's presidential candidates -- who favor repealing all or part of President Bush's tax cuts -- turns years of political experience on its head. Republicans have long championed lower taxes, and Democrats have largely shrunk from the fight, fearing the dreaded tax-and-spend label. But now, Democrats are attempting to move off the defensive and recast the tax debate as a matter of choices.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean put it this way during a campaign stop last week in San Francisco: "Would you rather have the president's tax cuts, or would you like health care that can never be taken away and is affordable? Would you rather have the president's tax cut, or should we fully fund special education, so your public school system will be stronger? Would you rather have the president's tax cut, or would you rather start to balance the budget?"
Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts plays off a line Bush has used to press for lower taxes. "It's your money," Kerry tells audiences. "But it's also your schools that are overcrowded, it's your traffic jams, it's your [national] debt that your children are going to have to pay."
Such talk of trade-offs is a gamble, one that leaves many Democrats uneasy. It recalls the 1984 campaign, when Democrat Walter F. Mondale promised to raise taxes to reduce the federal budget deficit. He was buried by President Reagan, who won in a 49-state landslide.
"If Democrats let this become a debate between high taxes and low taxes, we'll lose every time," said Bruce Reed, a former policy advisor to President Clinton and a leading party centrist.
Strategists for the top Democratic contenders said they are mindful of that danger, but insist that Bush's tax cuts are so deep and so harmful to the economy that voters -- particularly those who turn out in the party's primaries -- can be persuaded that they go too far.
"What this is about is the destruction of Social Security, Medicare, public schools and public services through massive starvation of these programs over time," said Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager.
The former governor has called for repealing all of the more than $1.7 trillion in Bush tax cuts, a position he shares with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
Others in the Democratic field would not go as far. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida would keep in place the Bush tax cuts that have taken effect, but would roll back those scheduled to phase in. Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Kerry have called for repealing the Bush tax cuts that benefit the wealthiest recipients. They also favor some form of tax relief for middle- and lower-income Americans, as does Graham.
"Instead of helping wealthy people protect their wealth, we should help working people build their wealth," Edwards said last week as he unveiled his plan of targeted tax breaks for middle-class families -- financed by repealing cuts for the more affluent.
Framing Kerry's position, campaign chief Jim Jordan said, "We're for tax cuts too. We're just for different tax cuts."
The key -- and it is tricky, party strategists acknowledge -- is turning the tax debate into a discussion of fairness and making voters feel the pain that Democrats anticipate from a downsized federal government.
"It's going to require somebody that can get that message down and make it clear and not make it geeky," said Robert G. Beckel, who managed Mondale's 1984 campaign and believes the budget deficit was too abstract an issue then to resonate with voters. "It can't be policy wonkish, and it can't be overly political. It has to be a statement of facts and it has to be provable in some real examples."
Bush has called the series of tax cuts he signed into law an antidote to the sagging economy he inherited when Clinton left office in January 2001.
The first, a 10-year, $1.35-trillion tax cut bill enacted in 2001, lowered income tax rates, boosted the child tax credit and reduced estate taxes. A second, more modest round of tax cuts last year included a series of breaks for business. The most recent package accelerated the tax cuts passed in 2001, offered further relief for business and lowered the top tax rate on dividend income and capital gains.
In signing the latest tax bill last month, Bush said the cuts would spur "a lasting expansion that reaches every single corner of America," and would help spur the creation of 1 million jobs by the end of 2004.
GOP strategists relish a debate on taxes with Democrats.
"They don't understand that the workers, the families, the small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and when they succeed, we all succeed," said Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "Tax relief stimulates small business, it stimulates economic growth, it creates jobs."