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Bush Camp Attacks Kerry's Spending Plan

The GOP charges that the senator would increase taxes to pay for a $1.7-trillion agenda. Democrats counter in a day of fiery exchanges.

March 23, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republicans on Monday significantly escalated their effort to paint John F. Kerry as a big-government liberal, charging he has endorsed a $1.7-trillion spending spree that would demand huge tax increases.

"I think it is important to ... make sure the American people understand just how big a government the Kerry administration would create," Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said in kicking off a series of coordinated attacks by President Bush's reelection campaign.

Democrats quickly countered that Bush had no credibility in accusing others of fiscal irresponsibility after presiding over a significant increase in government spending and the nation's largest federal budget deficit.

"No one in America should be taking math lessons from this administration or anyone associated with it after they have turned record surpluses into record deficits," said Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's communications director.

The new Bush attack echoed arguments Republicans used against Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1992. And some Democrats predicted that the charges would increase pressure on Kerry to show how he can square his promises of substantially increased spending on healthcare and other programs with his pledge to halve the federal budget deficit while only raising taxes on the most affluent families.

"The Kerry folks do have some tasks to do," said Ron Klain, a senior advisor to Gore in 2000. "They have to show they have a fiscal plan, a tax plan and a spending plan that makes sense."

If nothing else, Monday's fierce exchanges -- with conference calls to reporters by each side -- underscored the accelerated pace of this year's political battle. In 2000, Bush did not launch his comparable attack on Gore's spending plans until the first week of September.

The new Bush offensive is the latest to target Kerry since he emerged as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee early this month.

In speeches, interviews and television advertisements, the GOP has sought to portray Kerry as a traditional liberal who would be too quick to cut military spending and too slow to use military force.

The charge that Kerry is contemplating massive increases in government spending -- and tax increases to pay for it -- fleshes out the argument Bush sketched last month in a speech to Republican governors. The president said he sought to increase choice for individuals, in part by allowing them to keep more of their money through lower taxes, while his opponent would "increase the power of politicians and bureaucrats."

That reprised a central argument Bush employed with some success during the final weeks of his race against Gore in 2000.

The Republicans pressed their assault on Kerry's agenda through a coordinated flurry of activity that began Sunday night and continued through Monday. Advisors say the argument is likely to eventually appear in television ads.

Documents released by the Bush campaign used estimates from the media, the Congressional Budget Office and independent analysts -- ranging from a leading Democratic healthcare expert to the conservative National Taxpayers Union Foundation -- to charge that Kerry had promised increased spending of at least $1.7 trillion on dozens of new programs over the next decade.

Bush officials said the figure was a conservative estimate, since it included only the cost of 28 proposals for which specific spending estimates were available. The campaign said it did not include 45 Kerry proposals that lack enough details to generate cost estimates.

More than half of the new spending that the Republicans attributed to Kerry's programs would come from the Democrat's plan to expand access to healthcare and reduce insurance premiums.

The campaign said Kerry's tax policy -- centered on rolling back cuts in income tax rates and dividend and capital gains taxes for families earning more than $200,000 a year -- would raise about $700 billion in the next decade, according to Treasury Department estimates.

Bush's allies said that left a $1-trillion "tax gap" between Kerry's proposals and resources he has identified to pay for it.

In a call arranged by the Bush campaign, Glenn Hubbard, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, charged that Kerry's pledge to cut the deficit combined with his spending plans "would require massive tax increases of at least a trillion dollars beyond the tax increases on high-income people."

Democrats said the GOP logic was flawed.

Party analysts said Kerry could pay for part of his agenda by holding down spending in other areas and benefiting from economic growth that increases government revenue.

Kerry's policy director Sarah Bianchi said the Bush campaign also overestimated the cost of several of the senator's proposals -- including measures to expand student loans and the Head Start program -- and ignored his plans to reduce spending by cutting energy costs and eliminating corporate subsidies.

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