Person of the Week: George W. Bush

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ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

George W. Bush makes a point as he speaks on his $670 billion tax-cutting plan

George W. Bush could have just come out with a nice middle-of-the-road economic stimulus package. Some rebate checks here, some targeted tax breaks there; by fall 2004, the economy will probably have healed itself anyway. But the President took the plunge this week, offering a $670 billion tax-cut package that drew adjectives like "bold," "aggressive" and yes, "foolhardy." Leave it to posterity — or the economy in 2008 — to judge which, but there's no question that the splash has set the tone for the domestic economic-political debate for the next few months, and that's good enough to make the president our Person of the Week.

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The plan is certainly an aggressive specimen of free-market Republicanism and a stirring tribute to the twin ghosts of Keynes and Reaganomics. Deficits? If they even matter (which die-hards still won't admit), just tell Congress to spend a little less, if you're so worried, and private-sector growth — the increasing pie — will take care of the rest. Skewed to the rich? Well, they pay the most taxes anyway. At least it wasn't big corporations.

Bush won't be stressing those particular points as he hits the pre-SOTU stump circuit, but the "if it's good enough for 2006 it's good enough for now" argument will be a popular line, along with this inducement: Remember, folks, the sooner those rate reductions are made immediate and permanent, the sooner the Treasury Department can start fattening up those paychecks of yours.

But it's a tough sell: if Bush has more political capital than at this time in 2001, he also has less votes. With the midterm-bruised Democrats looking to firm up the battle lines for 2004, don't look for any of the old Breaux-led defectors to be there this time around (especially the ones Bush helped defeat this fall). On the GOP side, 2001 heretics John McCain and Lincoln Chafee are already off-board again, and Senate Finance Committee chairman Chuck Grassley is already predicting a rough and transformative Senate ride.

But if the plan survives its first wave of criticism as a brazen Reaganomic boondoggle, it may turn out to have a thick political skin. The marginal-rate cuts, as Bush will point out in every speech from now until spring, were already passed by Congress once (with bipartisan support, no less); why not start enjoying them now? The increases in child-care credits and marriage-penalty relief (not to mention, and Bush will, the immediate dropping of the 15 percent tax bracket to 10 percent) offer something for every hard-working middle-class family of swing voters. And the elimination of the "double" tax on dividends, while hardly the panacea the White House likes to crack it up to be, is economically benign and aesthetically satisfying, at the very least.

Optimistic Republicans love to call it "the political power of a big idea": Do it big, bold, and above all now, and voters will be so taken with the spectacle of their government actually doing something both dramatic and coherent that they'll simply shrug at the fiscal implications and hope for the best down the road. And if $670 billion is maybe a little pricey for the Senate (that dividend cut is already looking like a sacrificial lamb), and the plan lands on the President's desk somewhat smaller than when it left it, at least Bush will be remembered by the faithful (and maybe a middle-class swing voter or two) for having the big idea in the first place.