Free Advice: How Bush Should Sell His Tax Cut

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A few days ago, George W. Bush got bored political reporters' hearts all aflutter by admitting he's "got to do a better job" of convincing voters that his 10-year, $1.3 trillion tax cut is not only affordable budget-wise but also evenly distributed among the lower, middle and upper classes.

Thursday, we got a look at his salesmanship. To prove that his plan benefits those "working families," Bush got Andrew Bechac, 33, a teacher who supports his family on $40,000 a year, to stand up in New Orleans and say the magic words: "We all want tax relief, especially for my family and for Middle America around the country. We really need this plan and we really need the tax benefits that will come from this plan." (Bechac later admitted to reporters he was active in the Young Republicans.)

And as for Al Gore's cries of fiscal irresponsibility, Bush has a sort of reverse-psychology tack: Announce more spending initiatives. The logic: Why would a man promise to spend more money if his tax cut was using it all up? So Thursday, Bush announced a proposal to boost federal funding by $600 million over five years for historically black colleges and institutions that serve large Hispanic student populations.

Not bad, but he's got to do a better job if he is to convince people that he's not playing too fast and loose with the nation's nest egg.

Start by promising that if the surpluses don't materialize in all their current glory — which they won't, for a number of reasons — he'll do whatever it takes, including give his tax cut a cut, to keep the budget balanced.

With that pledge on the record, then Bush can start talking about how to balance the budget, and how Gore's combination of new spending and tax cuts is about as expensive as his. Once middle-class voters are reassured that Bush will not preside over a return to deficits, they'll listen to his any-extra-money-belongs-to-the-taxpayers philosophy.

Of course, everyone wants a tax cut, but there is strong evidence that it should not come at the expense of an unbalanced budget. Bush first needs to neutralize Gore's advantage as the fiscal-responsibility, pay-down-the-debt candidate. Then he can start pushing for a taxpayer refund.

Bush did a smart thing earlier this week in nixing the cheap-shot ad of Gore defending Clinton's veracity — the featured clip was from the pre-Monica days, and concerned Ollie North — and what the New York Times gleefully called a "split over strategy" could just have been a candidate reining in his bulldogs. Either way, it's in keeping with the above-the-fray image that Bush has cultivated with some success in this campaign. He might want to start applying that good sense to his tax-cut sales plan.