The end game is drawing near for George Bush’s tax-cut plan to reduce marginal rates on personal incomes and bring down tax barriers to wealth creation, marriage, and work effort. With the very same tax-cut plan that he successfully used to club John McCain during the primaries and beat back Al Gore during the general election, Bush inflicted first blood in the political war with partisan liberal Democrats Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt by defeating them Thursday with House-Senate passage of his budget resolution.
Remember, all along the way, going back to the autumn of 1999 when the Texan first unveiled his broad-based tax-cut package, he suffered a firestorm of criticism from Democrats, Republicans, the media, Wall Street, big business, economists, labor unions, foreign heads of state, and whatever. Liberals called it too much. Conservatives said it was too little. The punditocracy labeled it a big political loser. Remember?
Yeah, right. Thursday, with the help of a handful of Southern Democrats, Bush and his tax-cut plan stood at the top of the heap in Washington — king of the political hill, with a big power bar of momentum at his back as he prepares to do final battle over the structural and timing details of the tax-rate package.
The big thing about Bush is that he really is a smarter politician than the rest of them. With a steadfast policy vision and the character to see it through, he is headed toward a very major victory with the centerpiece tax-cut policy plank of his entire political being. As the first big victory, it will set the tone and define the power relationship with both the Democratic opposition and his own Republican party. With Thursday’s vote, Bush not only shows political power but also control of the policy agenda.
By contrast, George Bush Sr. was badly defeated when George Mitchell flogged him into the 1990 tax hike that crippled Papa Bush’s domestic policy and doomed his presidency. Ronald Reagan, however, badly whipped Tip O’Neill in 1981 by carrying the vote on across-the-board tax cuts. Now, Bush Jr. shows once again that he is following the Reagan model, and working it successfully.
This is the guy who lost the popular vote, needed the Supreme Court to put him over the line, and suffered pre-inaugural slings and arrows from opinion polls that showed nearly half the country thought he wasn’t really president. But if you don’t get an electoral mandate, you can create one. That is what Bush is skillfully doing. He is creating a national mandate to govern on his principles and his policies.
This is the mark of a truly clever politician. Perhaps, even a great one.
Actually, with only a few minor-misstep exceptions, Bush has completely transformed the Washington policy debate in only a few months. Using conservative principles, Bush has launched a remarkable policy offensive that includes tax-rate reduction, Social Security personal retirement accounts, a supply-side energy-production approach, budget spending limits, hemispheric free trade of the Americas, a move away from Kyoto global warming, an end to mainland China appeasement, a strong defense of Taiwan, a boost to SDI missile shield, a large step toward effective space defense, a clear injection of religion and faith into the public square, conservative judicial nominations, and revocation of U.S. taxpayer funds for U.N. anti-life operations. Phew. Takes your breath away.
The education bill has too much Ted Kennedy in it right now, but that may be changed. There have been a couple of miscues on environmental issues, but they have not damaged Bush in the polls.
Meanwhile, the big-picture economic and foreign-policy changes will impact American prosperity at home and U.S. interests abroad for literally generations. “These are really momentous things,” pollster John McLaughlin told me in an interview. “Meanwhile, no one is questioning his integrity. His polls today are substantially higher than a few months ago. And he has taken over his own party.”
It’s the self-created mandate thing, the honesty thing, the solid performance thing. Even Bill Clinton, another clever political chap, indeed causing his own downfall by always being too clever by one, had it exactly right a week ago when he told friends that Bush is a “formidable force…a strong-willed and focussed politician who knows how to build coalitions and get elected.”
In an important sense, final victory on the tax-cut plan a few months from now will amount to a second election for Bush. Hopefully, he will get most of his tax-rate relief with a pro-growth jolt from capital-gains tax reduction. But it is almost certain that with a tax-cut victory, he will carry this new first-year election test by a larger approval margin than last year’s results. That, in turn, will set the stage for one more tax-cut bill before the 2002 midterm election.
And, since tax cuts will stimulate the economy, a principle that is as certain as the everlasting hills, Bush could again surprise everyone by carrying the Senate and the House in next year’s midterm electoral referendum on his performance in office — for there’s another principle that’s as old as time itself: Economic growth spells political victory at the polls. You can take that one to the bank.