Think of this as a memo to Democrats in the House and the Senate. (Actually — just between us — that’s exactly what it is.)
Dear Messrs. Daschle, Gephardt, et. al.:
This is important. You are rapidly losing ground in the battle to frame the debate over tax cuts. The approach you’re now pursuing utterly ignores the essential elements of the politics of taxation. Bill Clinton had an intuitive understanding of this. But sometimes it seems like he was the only one. Clinton understood that you can never run against tax cuts, per se. NEVER. And, really, why should anyone ever be able to run against tax cuts? All other things being equal, shouldn’t we all want everyone’s taxes to be as low as possible?
But that’s the point: all other things aren’t equal. It’s tax cuts or paying down the debt or saving Social Security or instituting a prescription drug benefit and so on. Clinton understood this, and acted accordingly. And he added the kicker: which is better? Prescription drugs for your mother and grandmother, or a tax cut for the wealthy who are making out great already?
Thus far Democrats have failed utterly to approach the matter in this way.
But President Bush presented Democrats with a golden opportunity yesterday when he introduced his own pinched version of a Prescription Drug Benefit Plan (PDBP). This opened up a crucial point of vulnerability. The Bush plan is not only unpopular with the public – something ably demonstrated during the late presidential campaign, but also unpopular among politicians in congress, for a host of sometimes contradictory reasons. That provides a very big opening.
You must aggressively engage the president on PDBP. It is a golden opportunity to get off your backs and fundamentally reorder the legislative terrain of the 107th congress.
All the other shenanigans you’re up to pale in comparison.
What is accomplished by pushing PDBP now and not later?
Prescription drugs is not a two-fer or a three-fer, it’s a four-fer.
1. It’s just good public policy. A prescription drug benefit under Medicare would bring one of America’s most successful social programs into the 21st century by taking account of the increasing percentage of Medical costs taken up by prescription drugs.
2. It would outflank Bush on tax cuts. The president has introduced his winnowed-down version of a prescription drug benefit. Any Democratic alternative will be more generous, more popular, and – yes – more expensive. But that’s an advantage, not a liability. The White House will charge that the Democratic plan costs too much. At which point Democrats should respond: if it costs too much that’s only because the president’s tax cuts are so large. PDBP opens up a second front in the battle over fiscal policy. This moves the debate from an abstract discussion of taxes (which is inherently unfriendly to Democrats) to one of priorities (which is inherently unfriendly to Republicans.)
3. It will stymie and possibly derail efforts to reform Medicare along the lines of the Breaux-Thomas Medicare Reform Commission (the recommendations of which would convert Medicare into a voucher program run largely by HMOs).
4. It will throw the president off his legislative schedule and inflict the first real political damage on the new administration by exposing its political priorities as ones most Americans do not share.
There’s really no time to waste.
P.S. Next post we return to the fun stuff.