What Would Bill Clinton Do?

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A few weeks ago, Senator Joe Biden had a perfect little epiphany: Why not pay for the $87 billion that's needed for Iraq by asking the wealthiest 1% of Americans to forgo their Bush tax breaks for just a year—2010? The Bush breaks, after all, would be worth $89 billion that year. "I haven't found one single wealthy American" who wouldn't be willing to do that, Biden told Fox News. The idea has been gaining steam among his fellow Democrats in the Senate and may be introduced in the House by Congressman Tom Lantos of California. It probably won't pass, since Republicans control both houses, but Biden had found his way to the heart of the 2004 campaign: the notion that Bush's tax breaks for the wealthy could be put to better use.

General Wesley Clark quickly found his way there too. In his first official policy pronouncement last week, Clark proposed a two-year, $100 billion job-creation program—funded by rescinding the first two years of Bush's tax cuts for the top 2%, which will cost an estimated $112 billion. Indeed, every Democrat running for President has proposed something similar. Normally, this sort of thing is risky: Republicans can be counted on to squeal about "class warfare" whenever Democrats complain about tax cuts for the rich. But times are tough, Iraq's a mess, the looming deficits are enormous, the President is waning in the polls. "This is probably their strongest argument going into the campaign," a prominent Republican told me. But the Republican response to the Democrats' unanimity on the subject has been curiously muted. All of which got me to thinking about Bill Clinton.

In similar circumstances, what would Clinton do? Clinton was the genius political escape artist of the American presidency—and a good part of his success is attributable to the little things: great political antennae, an exquisite sense of how the political calendar works (when to move, when to delay), intellectual and tactical nimbleness. Those are God-given gifts that no recent U.S. politician can match. But Clinton also succeeded because he knew how to steal his opponents' best ideas, sand off the rough edges and get them enacted. Deficit reduction, free trade, an emphasis on law enforcement (remember Clinton's 100,000 new cops) and welfare reform were traditional Republican ideas and winners all—especially welfare reform, which was an essential component of Clinton's 1996 re-election strategy.

And that is undoubtedly what Clinton would do now if he were George Bush: he would totally bollix the Democrats by delaying, or scrapping, his tax cut for the wealthiest Americans. He would give an Oval Office speech, profess his continuing belief in the mystical power of tax cuts—but cite the national emergency in Iraq and the jobless recovery at home. He might even lift General Clark's deft gambit (which Clark lifted from John Edwards): a $40 billion jobs program disguised as a homeland-security program that would include reinforcing bridges and tunnels against terrorist attack and enlarging the Coast Guard and Customs services. "If Bush did something like that," said a Democratic campaign strategist, "we'd have nothing to talk about."

Actually, Bush has a long track record of Clintonian jujitsu. He took education—and a hoary liberal slogan—away from the Democrats with his "No Child Left Behind" act. The Department of Homeland Security was a Democratic idea, which he opposed, until he embraced it. If congressional Republicans can stop squabbling among themselves, Bush could well enter his re-election campaign having accomplished that most ancient and moldy of Democratic dreams, a new prescription-drug benefit for the elderly. His would be a fairly lousy benefit, but no one will notice because the program doesn't begin until 2006. So why doesn't Bush take the plunge on taxes? A matter of honor, say those familiar with the President's thinking—who also acknowledge that if he did rescind some of the tax cuts, it would raise Bush's poll ratings, gut the opposition and perhaps even guarantee his re-election. But Bush won't do it, I am told, because it would undermine all the Republicans in Congress who voted for the tax cuts and because it is precisely the sort of thing Clinton would do—and did do in 1993 when he walked away from his btu tax proposal after Democrats in the House had voted for it. "Next time the White House needed support on a tough vote," a Republican told me, "it might not be there."

Perhaps, but I can think of two other reasons. Tax cutting is a matter of Republican theology; it is as close to the heart of the g.o.p.'s Sun Belt base as abortion is to the Democrats' legions of secular feminists. There is also a bit of family history here. Another President Bush once, famously, promised no new taxes. George W. Bush has not only been assiduous about doing the opposite in office of what Bill Clinton did, but also the opposite of what George H.W. Bush did. On the tax issue, as on the Gulf War, Oedipus rules.