Two quick notes on

August 16, 2001 1:10 am

Two quick notes on the ensuing battle over fiscal policy (taxing and spending) which will likely consume political debate this Fall.

From the moment Jim Jeffords ditched the Republicans and handed Senate control to Tom Daschle, the more perspicacious strategists in both parties realized that the switch had at least one silver lining for Republicans.

No, it wasn’t the endless pundit-consensus blather about Democrats needing to ‘get something done.’ It was rather different.

When Fall rolled around and it became clear that the Bush tax cut had lurched the budget back into deficits (or at least back into dipping into the Social Security and Medicare surpluses), who would take the blame? So long as the Republicans controlled the White House and Capitol Hill the administration could not escape taking the hit for the inevitable fiscal breakdown. On the other hand, if the Democrats controlled one chamber — the Senate — then the White House could say the problem was that Democrats were spending too much.

This may strike you as a flawed argument. But often in politics it’s not a matter of having a persuasive response to an allegation or even a plausible one. It’s just about having something to say. The Democratic takeover of the Senate advanced the White House’s argument from ridiculousness to mere disingenuousness — and in Bush terms that’s no mean feat. President Bush trotted the argument out yesterday and you’ll be hearing it a lot more.

The other part of the story is the White House’s move to reconfigure the way that the Social Security revenue numbers are calculated in order to free up another $4 billion or so more. The implication of this move is clear: the new surplus numbers (already delayed for political reasons by the CBO) are either going to dip into the Social Security trust fund or come perilously close to doing so. Rather than take the heat for this, they’re changing the way the numbers are calculated. They’re cooking the books, etc.

As is always done in these cases the argument will be that this is actually a more accurate way of scoring the numbers (just one that hadn’t occurred to anyone else for the last sixty-five years.) But those of us who aren’t as dumb as doorknobs will realize that this is not only probably false but, more importantly, irrelevant since this is really just an example of, to quote Ted Olson, “changing the rules in the middle of the game.” And if you’ll think back to last year’s recount, that’s something Republicans really aren’t supposed to like.

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