Why You'll Be Seeing a Lot of Dubya and Those Giant Checks

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President Bush uses a giant mock-up check to promote his tax-cut plan

This is the week the tax cut goes public.

After spending one last weekend feeling out the Democrats — even popping in on House members on a Sunday retreat to field questions on his plan — George W. Bush is back on the stump, trying one last time to shake the Gore-fostered notion that his $1.6 trillion plan is a budget-busting, rich man's giveaway.

And just as in the fall, he's got a very tight script.

Standing in front of a novelty-sized check made out to "U.S. Taxpayer" in the amount of $1,600 — which, say White House mathematicians, is the average tax cut for a family of four under the plan — and some actual working families, one for each of the three lowest brackets, Bush hit all the GOP campaign themes. "Everybody who pays taxes will get some relief." "No American should pay more than a third of his income to the federal government." And the across-the-board point again: "I think it's important to cut all tax rates."

The end of public altruism

The heart of the plan is a simplification of the current five-bracket income-tax system — 15 percent, 28 percent, 31 percent, 36 percent and 39.6 — to four, lower ones of 10 percent, 15 percent, 25 percent and 33 percent. Lower across the board, lower for everybody. And yielding big enough individual savings, Bush hopes, to overcome eight years of Clinton-induced altruism among voters more concerned with deficits than their own pocketbooks.

Part of that is reviving that old Republican righteousness about how big a bite the federal government ought to take out of the people's paychecks. Part is reminding voters that their stock portfolios aren't picking up the slack anymore — hence the reminders about the sagging economy, and the cautious push to make the cut retroactive to the first of this year. And part is convincing Americans that with today's surpluses, what Clinton called the "failed policies of the past" — cutting the taxes of people who didn't really need the money — won't fail this time around. (And don't think Bush's no-soup-for-you-this-year message to the Pentagon last week had nothing to do with responsible tax cuts.)

Alan Greenspan did yeoman's work on that last one in his recent Senate testimony; Monday, Bush followed up his novelty-check event with a private lunch with the Fed chairman to discuss matters both fiscal and monetary. (As in, you're sure you don't mind if I keep telling people a tax cut can save the economy, even though you say it won't? Because it's my best leverage with the Democrats.) And then it's back on the trail.

Get used to those giant checks

Tuesday, Bush will have a full-coverage visit to a Washington-area small business, to argue again that tax cuts can spur economic growth.

Wednesday, Bush holds a reunion of the "tax families" he highlighted during the campaign — don't be surprised if more giant checks show up for that event.

Thursday, Bush sends the broad outlines of his plan to Congress, and the plan officially hits the bargaining table. Up for negotiation may well be the estate-tax repeal that passed both houses last year, countered possibly by some targeted cuts that Democrats want. Bush is promising "the tax cut I ran on," and thus size and scope are probably less negotiable than fine-print content. And with the public's sense of fiscal responsibility on a hair trigger, that goes for Republicans too.

"This is the right-sized plan, this is the right approach," Bush told reporters after Monday's event. "I'm going to defend it mightily."

And when you've promised to be nice to the other side in a sensitive time, the best way to do that is to let the poll numbers do the shouting for you.