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The Case for Bush's Strong-arm Tax Tactics

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RICK BOWMER/AP

Bush pitches his tax cut to traders on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange

Remember, George W. Bush only promised to "change the tone" in Washington — not stop the war.

It must have dawned on even the most naïve Democrat by now that for all the new president's friendly noises about reaching across the aisle to build bipartisan consensus, Bush's toothy smile comes with bare knuckles.

At least when it comes to the tax cut. In the GOP-majority House, Republicans will have ushered Bush's prized marginal rate cuts through on party-line votes by week's end. In the 50-50 Senate, Democrats armed with a filibuster are making Bush wait until they consider "the budget as a whole" in April. So the President is out wiping his shoes on other people's carpets.

"I think it's important for the president to get out amongst the people," Bush said this week before embarking on Week 2 of an unapologetic tour of states — Montana, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota — that met two criteria: They went solidly for Bush in November, and they had at least one Democratic senator to whom Bush intends to show the light. "If you find a member that you have some influence with," Bush told the crowd in Atlanta, state of Sen. Max Cleland, up for reelection in 2002, "and find out somebody isn't listening to you to do what's right for the country, just drop them a line."

Top Senate Democrats are not amused with Bush's version of bipartisanship. Tom Daschle was reportedly furious when he learned Bush would be stumping in South Dakota on Friday — Bush hadn't bothered to tell the South Dakotan first. Centrist golden boy John Breaux of Louisiana called Bush's House blitzkrieg "a serious mistake . . . That could make some real problems down the line." Robert Byrd is bracing for a fight. "If they try to ram that $1.6 trillion tax cut through this Senate," Byrd said Sunday, "they're going to create a lot of ill will, and I'm not so sure they'll get their tax cut."

The White House's outward smile continues — "I fail to see the lack of bipartisanship," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded Monday when pressed by reporters, but the Bush team has yet to breathe a word about negotiations or — gasp — compromise.

Or the highway

Remember, this is a guy who opened last Tuesday's budget address with a joke about needing Dick Cheney's tiebreaker just to get invited — and then proceeded to tell Congress he planned take away all of their extra money and give it back to taxpayers and then put them on a 10-year diet of 4 percent growth (half what they got last year). And if there happened to be money left over, Bush had a long list of Republican totems — from Social Security privatization to missile defense — he'd like to sell them. Heck, Bush's chief economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, has been hinting broadly all week at the possibility of . . . another tax cut. After barely more time in office than it took to figure out he'd been elected, Bush is politely telling the opposition party to shut up, smile and sign whatever Dick Cheney puts in front of them.

April — and the larger budget battle — is still a long way off. Most of this is still pre-negotiation positioning, albeit without much movement on either side. But if Democrats don't start climbing on board soon, the Across-the-Aisle President may go ahead and sail this ship without them.

Flashback to 1993. President Bill Clinton, in his first year in office, takes a hot tip from Alan Greenspan and rams the 1993 deficit reduction plan — plainly a tax hike — through Congress without a single Republican vote. Two terms later, he's looking back at the greatest U.S. economic boom — and the biggest budget surpluses — in history, and the "failed policies of the past" had become the Republicans' problem. With Clinton pounding the pulpit, Democrats were magically transformed into the party of fiscal sense and sound economic stewardship, and by the time Bush and his $1.6 trillion baby came along, across-the-board tax cuts were practically passé. All of which is why Daschle isn't exactly quaking in his boots — when it comes to matters fiscal, Clinton left Democrats standing on the moral high ground.

Yet Bush, whose personal approval ratings continue to outpace the support for his actual policies, is already showing signs of having the enough personal charm, as Clinton did, to get Americans to give him the benefit of the doubt. So here's his chance to do the same thing for the GOP that Clinton did for the once big-spending Democrats — put those failed policies behind them once and for all, and be trusted one again with the nation's money.

It may take the fist to do it. If he holds his nose and swallows estate tax reform — lets Daschle and Gephardt design a $10 million threshold that could take $200 billion off the price tag — he could get 55-60 votes. But after all these on-message months about $1.6 trillion (or was it $1.3 trillion?) and "the end of the death tax," if Bush caves first he risks looking like a fool. Well, he hasn't looked like a fool yet, not out in public, and the cold implacability of Bush's behavior these two weeks does not suggest a man about to offer too much. Let the bipartisans eat Medicare.

Eight years later...

Here's where the hard line might lead. Bush takes Zell Miller, and gives McCain and Specter and Snowe and Lincoln Chafee whatever they want — later — to get on board now, just like during the campaign. And with a bloodcurdling GOP battle cry, he rams it past Tom Daschle 51-50, with a pale Dick Cheney breaking the tie. Just like 1993. And then we'd have a very Republican budget, albeit with blood all over it. Bush's approval ratings would dip down to 51 and stay there until late summerů

At which point the economy will mysteriously shudder to life. Surely Bush's people see this coming — with the markets in the neighborhood of a bottom, corporate bonds starting to sell and Greenspan cutting rates again on March 20, the so-called recession could have come and gone by August. And Bush would be America's surprise achiever one last time, in position to yank the fiscal tiller from Bill Clinton's cold dead hand and claim it for the Republican Party.

Something like that happened to Ronald Reagan too. This time around, Bush had better make sure the numbers add up.