Thursday, it was Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, armed with posterboards, announcing the minority party's counteroffer to George W. Bush's $1.6 trillion baby: $900 billion. No details the Dems are still squabbling about what kind of tax cuts they want but some proportions. With the projected nonSocial Security surplus at $2.7 trillion, Daschle and Gephardt did sketch out a general surplus plan: one third for tax cuts, one third for debt reduction; and one third for new spending (education, a Medicare prescription drug benefit and the like.)
The Bush proposal is vague, too
Bush's plan, of course, sets aside more than half of that $2.7 trillion pie for tax cuts, along with what he promises will be healthy dollops for debt reduction and new programs, but he doesn't have all the details yet either. He submits his budget plan to Congress on Feb. 28, after addressing a joint session with a state-of-the-surplus address the day before.
As the realities of the congressional schedule have started snapping into focus, so has Bush's message. Fading fast is the once-dominant sales pitch about his plan being the road to economic recovery. (Bush will find the argument handier as he pushes for speedy part-by-part passage, starting with the nonnegotiable according to Bush across-the-board cuts, because it remains a convenient way to woo crossover Democrats.) But the emphasis is clearly back on passing a cut for that classic Republican reason: "Giving the people their money back."
Where have I heard that argument before?
Gephardt and Daschle are recycling all the arguments Bill Clinton used to beat back Republican tax cuts in each of the past few years not only does the Bush cut benefit the rich, it also cheats the poor of their due in government spending. This year, they don't have Clinton, and Tom and Dick both of them comparatively untalented as demagogues certainly miss the invaluable p.r. backup the Great Salesman used to provide.
But this year, at least, they've got Jon Corzine, Stinking Rich Democrat. (At his event, Bush joked to a skeptical reporter that he himself would stand for the rich folks.) Daschle simply brought along his freshman, Corzine, the New Jersey senator with the Goldman Sachs fortune.
"Being an inclusive party," Daschle said, laughing, "we have invited one of the wealthiest 1 percent to join us." And then Corzine, his head buried in his notes, estimated his own tax relief under the Bush plan at $1 million a year. "I don't need a break, but Luanna does," Corzine mumbled, referring to one of the Democrats' exemplary taxpayers, a black woman who said she was due for $117 a year. "I don't need a break, but Medicare does," Corzine continued. "I don't need a break, but our schools do."
Good speech, lame delivery. With the Greenspan testimony fading into memory and the projected surpluses reacquiring that familiar air of unbelievability, the Bush cut is polling well enough but uncovering a lot of reservations about size and skew. And so the Democrats feel like they have a chance in the next few weeks to throw a stick or two in Bush's spokes.
Where's Clinton when you need him?
But without Clinton around, the protest wattage looks awfully low. Big Bad Bill's grandstanding skills were so formidable that GOP senator Phil Gramm on Thursday was blaming last year's pork-barrel budget on "Democrats working with the President." (Um, Phil, weren't you guys in the majority last year?) And this year the tax cut is coming the other way from Pennsylvania Avenue to a still-unified Republican majority and it's a few lower-income compromises away from winning over some Democrats as well.
The Democrats will get some movement in the back rooms Bush is shopping for 15 to 30 House Democrats to stand behind him on this one, and he'll need to strike a few bargains like the death-tax repeal to get them to cross the aisle (and Gephardt). But to move the big numbers, like $1.6 trillion, you've gotta move the masses. And he may just do so. Daschle's and Gephardt's 2001 pitch charts, graphs and Jon Corzine doesn't look likely to turn many heads.