While many of us have been wondering why Republican leadership in the House and Senate have been virtually silent on the scandals swirling around the White House, some top GOP officials have been banking on the idea that one issue will carry the day for them in this year’s elections.

That issue is taxes — specifically a plan to eliminate the tax code by the end of the year 2001. A bill to do just that currently has 153 co-sponsors in the House and 36 in the Senate.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott don’t have much of a radical political agenda to boast about this year. But on this plan they agree. And, at least until recently, they agreed it was enough.

“It’s an absolute political winner,” declared Sen. Tim Hutchison, R-Ark. “This is the bright line. There is no way the president can fudge on this issue.”

“The public hates the IRS more than virtually any government institution,” explains GOP pollster and strategist Frank Luntz. This issue, he believes, is one of the best advantages the GOP has because you don’t have to be rich to resent the tax code. You don’t have to be on the right to be afraid of the IRS.”

But wait a minute. Now there are doubts being raised in Republican circles about even this core issue. It seems a confidential Republican National Committee poll shows that a majority of voters are afraid of the plan — thinking it risky, even reckless. That’s the argument the administration has been making against it. And before the debate has even begun, there are some influential Republicans ready to retreat on this, too.

While the poll numbers are brand new, and, as yet, no major GOP political figures have backed away from the plan, it is important to remember that Republicans govern and campaign as much on public opinion surveys as President Clinton does. There is not a whole lot of courage in the Republican ranks in Congress — not a lot of true leadership.

You can bet that the latest poll numbers are causing a fair amount of anxiety in the hearts of Republicans who have placed all their eggs in the tax-issue basket. With good reason, they don’t have a lot of confidence in their own ability to sell plans that are not already immensely popular.

The bill simply states that “no tax shall be imposed by the Internal Revenue Code … for any taxable year beginning after December 31, 2001.” Because it leaves open an alternative plan for raising revenue, the administration has countered that it would cripple the ability of families and businesses to plan and save for the future.

“No one concerned about fighting crime would even think about saying, ‘Well, three years from now we’re going to throw out the criminal code and we’ll figure out what to put in its place,'” Clinton told the Mortgage Bankers Association earlier this month. “That is what this proposal is.”

The administration has successfully raised fears among some that elimination of a mortgage-interest deduction would make it difficult for new homebuyers and change the rules for those who have already purchased homes. Since there is widespread conflict within the GOP about whether a national sales tax is preferable to a flat income tax, Republicans are unable to put forth a plan that would ease such fears.

If eliminating the tax code was a matter of principle with Republicans, then the poll results would mean little. But, clearly, it is not. It is a political formula constructed by pollsters like Luntz. And when the numbers don’t materialize magically as they had imagined, there is sure to be fear and loathing about such a strategy among the weak-kneed in the GOP.

America once had leaders who stood up for what they believed and trusted the public to follow — to weigh the pros and cons of the argument and make the right decision. But this is 1998, and that’s not the way American politics work anymore. Today, politicians try to figure out the easiest way of getting re-elected and then tailor their message accordingly. The Democrats do it. The Republicans do it. That’s why we have such a profound shortage of good ideas and viable plans circulating in the public policy arena these days.

I predict Republicans will rue the day they decided not to challenge Clinton for his many legal and ethical lapses. Because he’s a much better politician than any of them.

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