Senate Democratic leaders, stung by criticism that they
have failed to challenge the Bush administration's assault on civil liberties,
are taking comfort from their goal-line stand against the latest round of
proposed tax cuts. Yet as we approach the 2002 off-year elections, the Democrats
could easily repeat the mistakes of the Clinton era by trying to make fiscal
rectitude their mantra.
The other day, White House budget director Mitch Daniels told Congress that
he expected the budget to be in deficit for the next three years. That admission
ought to whet Democrats' appetite for repealing Bush's $1.35-trillion tax cut.
However, far too many Democrats are reverting to an old, discredited playbook.
In 1998, Bill Clinton worried that endless surpluses would lead to Republican
tax cuts. So he declared that fiscal policy should "Save Social Security First."
Depending on what sort of gloomy accounting you used, Social Security could be
shown to be so far in the red that it could soak up almost any conceivable
Supposedly, this strategy was a sublime trifecta. First, it redeemed Democrats
as prudent budgetary stewards. Second, it associated Democrats with the most
popular of government programs. And third, saving Social Security could be
reliably counted upon to trump any tax cut. So instead of demanding that much of
the surplus be spent on long-deferred, popular social outlays that actually rally
the Democratic base, the White House hoisted the green eyeshade as a party
In fact, every aspect of the scheme backfired. A huge and regressive tax cut
passed anyway. Waving Social Security, like a garlic clove at Republican
vampires, didn't work. Worst of all, Democrats are now without the fiscal
resources, the ideological moorings, or the political nerve to promote social
investments that voters value.
The projected three-year deficit was a one-day story, which The New York
Times buried on page A19. Nonetheless, in 2002 centrist Democrats will
pillory Republicans as The Party That Squandered the Surplus. The New
Yorker recently profiled Congressman John Spratt, a mournful senior Democrat
from South Carolina who sits on the House Budget Committee, as despondent over
the dwindling surplus. If the Democrats use this as their theme next year, the
voters will reward them with a polite yawn.
By November 2002, the public may be weary of endless semi-war and lingering
recession; Bush II, former wartime hero, could face the same vulnerability as
Bush I. But if the best Democrats can offer is fiscal probity, they will reap few
The Democrats need to be a party that champions ordinary voters. Social
Security and Medicare are powerful, not just because they deliver tangible
benefits to key constituencies, but as fruits of real political struggle. Today,
that historic struggle is fossilized in the big social insurance programs that
benefit mainly seniors. Centrist Democrats lack the gumption to extend the same
kind of political connection to younger voters on issues such as practical help
to working families.
The very first target should be the huge tax cut--which could be repealed and
redirected to popular social outlay. The endless Reagan deficits were certainly
bad policy. But the conventional remedy is worse. For most voters, the issue
isn't how precisely government balances its books but what we use government for.