Death and Taxes: Together Forever?

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Repeal the "death tax"? Over Bill Clinton's dead body.

With a few clucks of the tongue and a few pages from Al Gore's stump speech, Bill Clinton on Thursday sent the House Republicans' estate-tax repeal right back to Dennis Hastert. And the president gave Coach the same deal he used to give Newt Gingrich: Cave in or take it on the trail, and we'll do our negotiating on the airwaves.

Clinton and Gore say the repeal will primarily benefit the rich — which it will — and dead rich people should have to share their loot with the rest of us, not just their heirs. Republicans, bent on passing last year's tax cut in small bites, and George W. Bush, who's still shooting the moon but includes the repeal in his overall plan, say taxing the dead is just plain wrong, whether the dead guy is rich or not (though the upper-income skew sure doesn't hurt).

Aware that maybe they're not the best allies around, congressional Republicans seem content to fight their own fight on this and the larger tax-philosophy question (who gets the phantom surplus?), and let Bush fight his. The Hill gang is actually doing a little better. They've got some Democrats on their side — though not enough to override in both houses — and a smaller, more appealing tax cut, while Bush is stuck with a $1.3 billion albatross that's a much fatter target for Clinton and Gore.

Clinton and Gore, meanwhile, may finally be on the same page. Gore hits fairness (meaning progressive taxation) and fiscal responsibility on the stump and Clinton hits it from the White House pulpit, doing parry-and-thrust with Congress and campaigning for his veep at the same time. And Gore happens to get a spokesman, who is really, really good at walking the fine line between populism and class warfare.

"If I were against creating millionaires," said Clinton, tossing in that two billionaires, fearing for charitable contributions, called him to urge a veto of the bill, "I would have been an abject failure in my years as president." The line got laughs.

Hastert and Bush may feel they've got principle on their side, but the best salesman usually wins — especially when the hunger for tax cuts these days is nagging at best. And Republicans contemplating a public fight — veto-override votes are all over next week's congressional schedule — might want to call Newt Gingrich and ask him who's been winning these p.r. stare-downs since 1995. And Gingrich might remind them that if they go down hard enough, George W. Bush is liable to go right down with them.

It'd be a shame to die a third straight November death over a surplus that isn't even real.