Selling the Tax Cut

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CYNTHIA JOHNSON FOR TIME

Campaign 2001: Back to the hustings to pitch his budget — and pressure the pols

Ben Nelson has been in the senate for all of two months, but he knows what the George W. Bush treatment feels like. Not just the win-a-little-nickname treatment (Bush dubbed him Nellie) but a far more punishing one--the kind that can make a politician sweat. A Democrat and former Governor of Nebraska, Nelson was onstage with Bush at the Omaha Civic Center last Wednesday when the President set about tickling the crowd of almost 4,000. Pointing out both Nelson and his Republican colleague, Chuck Hagel, Bush declared, "I know that when it comes to doing the right thing, they'll listen to the people of Nebraska." As the crowd roared and waved miniature American flags, Nelson turned his frozen smile to Hagel. "You haven't come out for his tax plan yet, have you?" he asked. "Well, no," Hagel said, laughing. "But is there any doubt I will?"

Nellie, you're on your own. The Senator won his seat last fall by the narrowest margin in state history. Bush, who crushed Gore by 30 points in Nebraska, was sending a clear message: a vote against the tax cut would be a vote against a President who was more popular in Nebraska than Nelson. It might even be political suicide.

That's the kind of candygram that Bush is delivering to more than a dozen vulnerable Senators--men and women who will make the difference in the coming battle over Bush's tax cuts. A small handful of Republicans could defect and the President will need to peel off an equal number of Democrats to ensure passage of his program. Last week, after delivering his big budget address to Congress, he swept into Arkansas and Georgia, where Democrats Blanche Lincoln and Max Cleland felt the love. This week Bush will swing through Louisiana and North Dakota, two more states he won handily--and where Democratic Senators hang on to their jobs by hewing to local opinion. Even Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, whose job is to rally the opposition, won't be spared. Bush plans to visit Daschle's G.O.P.-leaning home state of South Dakota this week.

To hear Bush describe his budget, you'd think Nelson and the others would all be jumping up and shouting "Hallelujah!" As Bush tells it, we can afford guns and butter, higher spending and lower taxes, missile defense and a prescription-drug benefit, Social Security forever. After a month that felt more like the ninth season of the Clinton Show than the first of Bush's, the new President's address last Tuesday had the air of a second Inauguration. In a real sense, it marked the beginning of his presidency, the moment when the new guy started filling his suit. The performance was, well, Clintonian in its easy embrace of the other party's ideas--more funding for education and health research, protection for national parks, even an end to racial profiling--headed up by John Ashcroft, no less.

The tone was so warm and comforting that you had to endure a fistful of paper cuts while going through Bush's 207-page budget blueprint to feel its chilly austerity. The document makes it clear that Bush's true inspiration is not Bill Clinton but Ronald Reagan--the last President to promise a mammoth tax cut. Bush's task is, if anything, more daunting than Reagan's was 20 years ago. The Gipper was elected at a time of mounting deficits with a mandate to cut government down to size--yet never came close to taming the beast. Bush avoids Reagan's sharp rhetoric and is governing without a mandate during a time of surpluses, yet he proposes to hold federal spending to a 4% increase overall, barely more than the rate of inflation. That sounds "reasonable and responsible," as he says, but in fact it is wildly ambitious, even radical. Congress boosted spending more than 8% last year, and even Republican committee chairmen can't imagine living on less than a 6% hike this year. "In the last couple of Congresses, everyone got drunk on a spending binge," says a senior Bush aide. "They scratched the President's back, and Clinton scratched theirs."

The idea of making hard choices--of cutting some departments deeply in order to free up money for others--is commonplace in the private sector, where Bush's lieutenants lately toiled, but the Capitol calculators have different buttons. In the past, those who have tried to bring real-world discipline to Washington have gone away dizzy. The White House insists this time will be different. Aides say Bush will veto any spending that busts his 4% cap.

The President's team knows how fierce the political battle will be. Bush has a lower approval rating than any other new President in 50 years. And after 18 months of selling his tax-cut plan, he has yet to inspire a national sing-along. So White House political guru Karl Rove is surveying his battle maps and strategic-planning calendars to orchestrate a multi-week sales tour mixing the hucksterism and pageantry of a presidential campaign with a strong undercurrent of blackmail. The focus is on the Senate, with its 50-50 split between parties (the House, Bush aides say, is a slam dunk). Six of the targeted Democrats are up for re-election in 2002. Says a gleeful Bush official: "These Senators are going to hear about it at home."

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