The Old Well Runs Dry

  • Naomi Radford knew she recognized the man sitting at the next table. She couldn't place his name, but she had seen his boyish face and mop-top hair on TV, and she knew he was running for President. Now he was right beside her, talking to a reporter at a cafe in Fort Dodge, Iowa. So Radford interrupted him, and John Kasich, the 46-year-old Republican Congressman from Ohio, stopped quartering his French toast to listen to her. A widow with an eye infection, Radford, 73, told Kasich she was struggling every month to pay for her prescriptions. One cost $81 to fill, the other $57, and the prices kept going up. How could the government help? she asked.

    Kasich gave her the same answer he gives to almost every other question these days: Government can help by cutting taxes. More specifically, by using the postdeficit era's budget surpluses to slash federal income-tax rates 10% across the board--a total of $776 billion in tax cuts over 10 years. That's the essence of the Kasich plan, which the House budget chief introduced last month to the cheers of fellow Republicans trying to persuade Americans to forget all about the G.O.P.'s impeachment binge. Tax cuts, after all, are the sturdiest of Republican perennials--the glue that's supposed to hold the party together, and what Kasich calls "a moral issue. If you have more money in your pocket," he says, "you have more control over your life."

    It sounds like a message that will resonate with voters--so why isn't the Kasich plan catching on? It doesn't resonate with retired seniors like Radford, who pays little federal income tax and so wouldn't benefit from it, or with small-business owners like Don Rudd, 53, of Des Moines, who called Kasich's idea "fluff" during the Congressman's swing through Iowa. And now it isn't even resonating with Republican congressional leaders, whose initial enthusiasm quickly faded--first into nervous, qualified support and finally, by last week, into utter indifference and near disdain. Even some conservatives agree with Florida's Joe Scarborough, who dubbed the Kasich plan "a loser idea."

    Having already agreed to Clinton's insistence that 62% of each year's budget surplus be set aside for Social Security, many G.O.P. members fear that pushing an across-the-board income-tax cut could lead to disaster as Democrats bash them for favoring the rich (who would benefit most from such a cut). So moderates have lined up behind a far less ambitious package of targeted, Clinton-style tax breaks crafted by Connecticut's Nancy Johnson. Senate majority leader Trent Lott, who only two weeks ago was flogging the 10% cut at a town-hall meeting in Michigan, had a change of heart, saying last week that he was happy that tax relief was being debated at all. A plan more likely to emerge from Lott's domain is being drawn up by Senate budget boss Pete Domenici, a cautious deficit hawk who wants to postpone tax cuts until surpluses grow much larger. New Jersey Democrat Robert Torricelli is proposing yet another idea: raise the amount of income subject to the 15% minimum rate and exempt $500 of interest and dividend income and $5,000 in capital-gains taxes.

    "That's what they said about Joe DiMaggio," Kasich gamely told TIME the next day. "It is not dead. Frankly, we haven't begun to fight." But for all his protesting, Kasich knows his tax cut--which he hoped would buoy his underdog presidential campaign--has little chance. At a time when Republicans hold just a six-seat majority in the House and people are most concerned about traditionally Democratic issues like fixing Social Security and the schools, Republicans have no appetite for a partisan brawl over tax cuts.

    Ask someone whether he or she would like to pay less in taxes, and the answer will be yes. But the days of the tax revolt are over, at least for now. In the 1998 midterm elections, only 10% of voters said taxes were a determining factor in how they cast their ballots. In 1996, when Bob Dole promised a 15% cut, voters yawned. None of this bodes well for G.O.P. presidential hopefuls running on the pledge of tax reform, most notably Steve Forbes, long a champion of a flat tax. "It's simple," explains Robert Reischauer, a former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. "People feel pretty good about their economic circumstances, and for the vast majority, tax burdens are not particularly high."

    Which is why, if any tax cut passes this year, it will be something so modest and targeted that Clinton might actually sign it. Does that mean Kasich and his fellow G.O.P. presidential hopefuls will begin searching for more fertile policy ground? "Absolutely not," says Ed Goeas, Kasich's pollster. Tax cuts may not galvanize the electorate these days, but they still matter to the G.O.P. faithful. Already unhappy with the outcome of the impeachment trial, those core supporters will, Goeas says, revolt if Republicans abandon tax cuts. "Our base is angry enough," he says. "A perception that the Republican Party is rolling over on taxes could be a real problem for us." In search of mainstream voters, some Republicans are secretly praying for an economic downturn to jolt people out of their complacency. "I hate to say it, but a recession or a war would be a good thing for us," says an adviser to a Republican candidate.

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