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Clark Budget Plan Would End Tax Cuts for the Wealthy

October 23, 2003|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In the first major economic speech of his month-old presidential campaign, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark unveiled a budget plan Wednesday that hinges on a rollback of tax cuts for the wealthy and a less costly reconstruction effort in Iraq.

Clark, his voice hoarse from a bout of laryngitis, also told the audience at the University of New Hampshire's Manchester campus that defense cuts could be part of the $2.35-trillion savings his plan projects over the next decade.

"I'm going to support every dime we need to keep America strong," the Army four-star general said on a five-day campaign swing through New Hampshire. "But I'm not going to tolerate billions of dollars of waste or inefficiency just because somebody stamps a label 'Secret' on it."

The crowd of about 200 students and Democratic activists punctuated his message with frequent applause. Many said afterward that Clark, despite his late start, represented the party's best chance to defeat President Bush.

"I'm looking for someone to support who can defeat George Bush," said Bill Johnson, a 78-year-old retired Navy officer and former state senator. "I was sold on him before this" speech.

Johnson said hearing Clark reinforced his backing for him.

Clark's call for ending Bush's tax cuts for families with more than $200,000 in annual gross income is similar to those made by Democratic rivals Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. Clark, like Kerry and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, would retain Bush's middle-class tax cuts.

Lieberman would also have wealthy families pay more in taxes than they did before Bush took office and provide further cuts for middle-class taxpayers. Other candidates, such as Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, want to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts, in part to reduce the federal deficit.

Clark on Wednesday seemed to try to pull away from the pack on fiscal issues by emphasizing his insight on the military -- whether it involves cutting defense spending or improving the rebuilding process in Iraq.

Part of the $2.35 trillion in savings under his plan, Clark said, would include $125 billion that could be saved over 10 years with a more efficient and multilateral policy in Iraq.

"We need to fix the way we do business in Iraq," Clark said, adding that Bush has "taken us into an elective war," has done a poor job of getting allies to share the financial burden and has given lucrative reconstruction contracts "to old friends without using basic competitive bids."

The other savings would include: $225 billion in "government streamlining," such as consolidating some portions of federal agencies and eliminating others; $1.1 trillion in recaptured revenue from wiping out tax cuts for the wealthy, and $300 billion by ending corporate tax breaks.

Clark said the savings would be spent on deficit reduction, homeland security, health care, education and business incentives for job creation.

Brock Blomberg, a senior economic advisor in the administration of Bush's father, said Clark's 10-year proposal was based on flawed assumptions.

"Where's all this money waiting to be had?" said Blomberg, a college professor who heads the Politics, Philosophy and Economics program at Claremont McKenna College. If savings were that easy, he said, other politicians would have done it long ago. "It sounds like he was more of a social science professor than a math professor at West Point."

Among nine Democratic candidates, Clark is the voters' top choice in some national polls. But in New Hampshire, whose primary is Jan. 25, Clark ranks a distant third or fourth.

While Clark provided a broad outline of his fiscal vision and promised more specifics later, much of his speech was spent delivering sharp jabs to Bush policies he contends have resulted in a large federal deficit, handouts to the rich and less protection for the environment. He spoke about the strength of the economy under Bush's predecessor, President Clinton, and that the federal government then had a healthy surplus.

"George W. Bush told America we could really have it all. Massive tax cuts for the wealthiest people, lots of spending on education, Social Security safe for another generation and big budget surpluses as far as the eye could see," Clark said.

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He ran on the New Deal. Harry Truman promised a Fair Deal. George W. Bush, he ran on the free lunch, and the free lunch, it turns out, was a bunch of baloney." Clark acknowledged that opponents had been critical about his inexperience with domestic issues. But he touted his background as a Rhodes scholar, economics professor at West Point and investment banker.

The crowd was receptive.

Marianne and Ross Buck drove two hours to hear Clark, arriving with a two cameras and a video recorder.

"I thought he was brilliant," said Ross Buck, a 62-year-old college professor at the University of Connecticut. "He helps take back the American flag from conservatives who have had it since the '60s."

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