George W. Bush is losing his working majority in Congress. The only surprise is
that it took so long. As recently as a month ago, the new administration imagined
that its tax package would just sail through on a tide of media torpor,
Republican discipline, and bipartisan gesture.
No longer. As the details of the president's not very popular program seep
into public consciousness, Republicans are starting to desert. So far the Senate
has just one reliably faithless Democrat, the politically androgynous Zell Miller
of Georgia [see "Zellout," by Joshua Micah Marshall, on page 14]. Other
conservative Democrats who were expected to defect to the Republicans have voted
with their own party leaders. Republican moderates, however, are crossing the
aisle with impunity.
The basic problem with the Bush budget, substantively and politically, is that it
puts unpopular tax cuts ahead of public outlays that most voters want. Bush would
divert hundreds of billions from the Medicare trust funds, causing the Hospital
Insurance Trust Fund to face bankruptcy in 2010. The Bush budget would
underfinance a prescription drug benefit, slash funding that provides health care
for the uninsured, cut already depleted amounts for housing, and shortchange
child care. Bush does propose a modest increase in education funding--but offsets
it with cuts in job training, services for the elderly and disabled, and money
for early childhood learning.
Adjusting for inflation and population growth, Bush's real cuts in domestic
outlay total $300 billion over 10 years. All of these rollbacks, on top of the
excessive reductions mandated by the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, are necessary only
to finance a gigantic and regressive tax giveaway. The more that the proposed tax
cuts are juxtaposed against popular uses of public outlay, the more Bush's
support will erode.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a spiteful and panicky editorial that
began: "The Senate voted Friday to slash President Bush's tax cut by 20 percent,
and we thought you might like to know the reasons. Their names are Senators Jim
Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee and Ben Nelson, and what they want is a lot more of your
money to spend." The Journal added bitterly, "The spending senators don't
give a rip about the debt or the faltering economy, only about passing out more
cash to buy more votes."
In fact, the Bush budget does little for the faltering economy. It's the
Democrats who are pushing a front-loaded, downward-tilted tax cut, as economic
This kind of overheated rhetoric from the Journal is a reliable sign that
Bush is on the ropes. But the Journal's premise that senators can be bullied
by reference to a popular tax cut is as mistaken as it is futile. Outside the
country club set, America is not clamoring for this tax relief. And spending the
surplus on Medicare, on education, on child care, and on other social needs is
not "buying votes." It is addressing outlays that the majority of voters support.
That's how a democracy works. It's charming to read the Journal rail
against the buying of votes. Judging by its editorialists' views on money and
politics, the Journal evidently favors buying votes the old fashioned way,
with campaign contributions.
Another factor has led to the unraveling of the Bush program. Democrats in
Congress have awakened from their post-traumatic coma. Social outlays and a
progressive tax system, it turns out, are good politics. It doesn't take
particular courage for senators to stand behind Social Security, Medicare, good
schools, and early childhood education. If anything, it takes courage of a sort
to urge tax breaks for the top 1 percent or 2 percent of voters at a time when
ordinary people can't pay drug and medical bills. It takes courage to urge that
multimillionaires be spared paying a nickel in estate taxes while minimum wage
workers pay payroll taxes. If Republicans persist in this sort of political
courage, voters will reciprocate by electing more Democrats.
A liberal senator recently asked what "new ideas" the group around The
American Prospect had to express progressive values in more up to date form.
I'm not sure I buy the premise. The best liberal ideas are pretty well
established: A market economy needs social counterweights. The private sector is
not competent to provide such social goods as education and health care. Full
employment is the working person's best friend. Big money needs to be kept in its
place or it will swamp democracy. The fairest way to finance government is via a
progressive tax system. We want industry to succeed but recognize that its
antisocial tendencies must be tamed via regulation in the public interest.
Democracy itself needs to be deepened and broadened.
Over the past two decades, self-styled New Democrats have contended that a party
still stuck with Depression-era imagery needed more modern ideas. Most of these
turn out to be either variations on Republican ideas or mere gimmicks. In his
recent investigative piece about the Democratic Leadership Council ["How the DLC
Does It," TAP, April 23, 2001], our Washington editor, Robert Dreyfuss,
pointed out the strategic damage done by DLC ideology. Every time somebody
proposes an affirmative and popular use of the public sector, a New Democrat can
be counted on to say, "That's just big government again."
The voters, it turns out, value government--if it serves their needs. And
effective government programs, coupled with strong democracy, are the glue of the
progressive majority coalition. George W. Bush is learning that the hard way.
Democrats never should have forgotten it.