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."