Sad to say it

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Sad to say it, but the Democrats seem to be losing the tactical battle to frame the tax cut debate. And there’s simply no reason for it. Alan Greenspan’s testimony yesterday is a setback. But it needn’t have been and still needn’t be a major one.

Every news story over the last month which points to support for a tax cut is chalked up as a victory for the president. Dick Gephardt says he’s for a tax cut; so that’s a victory for Bush. Alan Greenspan says he supports a major tax cut; so that’s a victory for Bush.

But wait. Al Gore ran on a platform which supported a major tax cut. Not a megalithic one like Bush’s. But one in the neighborhood of $500 billion. And for anyone who knows jack about economics, Gore’s tax cut would have a greater short-to-medium term impact on the economy than Bush’s since Gore’s is focused on people who tend to spend the extra money rather than save it. (Whether navigating recessions is better done through monetary or fiscal policy is another matter entirely).

So the Republicans aren’t the only ones supporting a tax cut. And, yes, you can find Dems who make these arguments. But that’s just not how it’s playing in the press. So the Dems tax cut talk is just trees falling in the forest.

Another point. As president Clinton ably demonstrated, you can never run against tax cuts per se. Never. You can make political arguments about who benefits from them. Or you can make arguments about priorities – tax cuts versus ‘saving social security’ or paying down the debt, etc. And why shouldn’t that be so? All other things being equal, shouldn’t we all be for everyone’s taxes being as low as possible? I think we should.

But that’s the point. All other things aren’t equal. Too often Democrats get tangled up in abstract arguments about equity or spending qua spending. This will choke off all possibilities for activist government, etc. etc. etc. (Traditional libs will complain most about losing this tax cut debate. But they’re actually most responsible for the problem.)

The conventional wisdom seems to dictate now that the public just isn’t interested in major new government spending and thus – with the debt pay-off argument receding – the Dems have no available arguments at their disposal.

But this is foolish. With Bush arguing that Social Security and Medicare need to be reformed because baby-boomers are going to bankrupt the programs, isn’t the issue money? If the programs are in such a bind why cut their potential sources of new revenue? Or let’s think more immediately. How about a prescription drug benefit under Medicare? It’s real popular. And, trust me, it’ll cost a ton of money. So why not line up prescription drugs against tax cuts. The Dems’ half a trillion dollar tax cut and a prescription drug benefit for your parents and grandparents versus Bush’s cut for his wealthy campaign contributors (and, yes, our wealthy campaign contributors too). That sounds like good politics, doesn’t it?

Ironically, the folks at the DLC (who I skewered in an article in the current issue of The New Republic) are actually the one’s doing the most to get out in front of Bush in a tactically intelligent and principled fashion. But no one seems to be listening.

Anyway, I know I’m not the only one to think of these things. But it’s not getting translated politically and there’s really no time to lose. This ain’t rocket science; but for most Dems you’d think it was advanced Relativity Theory.

Someone call Chappaqua! I think we need the old guy back. At least to call the shots.

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