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We can't have war and tax cuts, too

Most columns build up to a bottom line. This one starts with it: We can’t afford a war and another giant tax cut, too. It is fiscally irresponsible to offer, or ask for, both.

The charade starts, of course, with President Bush, who is trying to sell the country his own version of what Lyndon Johnson called “guns and butter,” and what his father later ridiculed as “voodoo economics.”

Already facing a projected $325 billion deficit, is the president dropping his $726 billion tax cut in order to help pay for the war? No! Instead, he preaches the appealing, but phony, idea that we can wage war and put more money in people’s pockets at the same time. History proves him wrong. With the exception of the war against Mexico in the 1840s, taxes have been increased in every war fought before and since.

Finally, this week, the administration put a price tag on the war in Iraq. If you believe the official spin, their number-crunchers were unable to do so before the fighting actually started. They couldn’t even come up with a ballpark figure. The truth is, they didn’t try. They refused to give a number before a compliant Congress, ignorant of the cost of war, passed the president’s budget package anyway – complete with a huge, new tax cut.

But now is the moment of truth. Deliberately delayed or not, the administration’s estimated $75 billion cost of war is a joke. It covers anticipated expenses for the next six months only. It does not cover any war expenses after Sept. 30 or the long-term costs of reconstruction. And, unlike Desert Storm, where coalition partners picked up 80 percent of the war tab, this is one bill American taxpayers will have to swallow alone. At best, $75 billion is nothing but a down payment on the war in Iraq.

Even so, the numbers just don’t add up. Under its most rosy economic scenario, the administration projects a $325 billion deficit for this fiscal year. Add the price of war and that deficit swells to $400 billion, not counting the cost of interest. As most economists will agree, massing such a pile of debt is neither wise nor healthy.

Budget Director Mitch Daniels tries to justify the tax cut by arguing that deficits don’t matter. They are, in fact, good for the economy. Says who? I remember when President Ronald Reagan – who even championed a Balanced Budget Amendment – preached that, like the average household, government should not spend more than it takes in. Republicans used to believe that. Reagan was right. Bush is wrong.

Daniels also insists that tax cuts will stimulate the economy and therefore produce more, not less, income. Wrong again. Bush made the same tired argument for his $1.3 trillion tax cut two years ago, and look what happened: record unemployment and economic stagnation. Tax cuts didn’t work in peacetime 2001. They won’t work in wartime 2003, either – as even the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported this week.

Those arguments having failed, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer trotted out a new justification for tax cuts: Do it for the troops. It’s the only way, he insists, “to make sure that the economy can grow and that jobs can be created, so that when our men and women in the military return home, they’ll have jobs to come home to.”

Shame on Fleischer, using the war to justify a tax cut. And, of course, he’s wrong. The budget deficit won’t guarantee Iraqi war veterans a job, it will just saddle them with a big debt to pay off. As Rep. Gene Taylor, a conservative Democrat from Mississippi, lamented: “You’re sticking those 250,000 young Americans and their children with that bill. And that’s inexcusable.”

Back to the bottom line: We can’t afford the war and a tax cut, too. It’s time for conservatives to stop looking for a government handout and put their money where their mouth is. If Americans really support this war, they should be willing to pay for it.

Surely there is something fundamentally wrong in championing another tax cut for wealthy Americans when the sons and daughters of poor Americans are dying in Iraq.

How can we, in good conscience, ask them to sacrifice their lives for this country if we are unwilling to sacrifice another tax cut?