Republicans in Congress have been potentially (and
uncharacteristically) shrewd the past couple of months, passing tax cuts
President Clinton is almost sure to veto, which creates the possibility
of delineating something like real differences between the two parties.
But it's hardly a sure thing that the Republicans will bring themselves
to do such a divisive thing, for the simple reason that the Republicans
lust after the federal "surplus" almost as obscenely as do the
The likelihood that the Republican convention next week will focus on
warm-and-fuzzy themes and how much the GOP cares for "our children"
(leaving those of us who would just as soon politicians of all stripes
kept their grubby paws away from our actual children) bodes ill for such
delineations. And the fact that veepster-in-waiting Richard Cheney's
instinct is to apologize for a solid conservative voting record in
Congress, hinting that if there hadn't been a federal deficit back then
he might have been inclined to approve of excessive and unconstitutional
spending programs is hardly a good sign.
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Columnist Bob Novak reports that Dubya is stage-managing the GOP
confab more tightly than any candidate in recent memory and that part of
his management involves shutting out conservative groups and
constituencies that have traditionally been treated well at national
conventions. Certainly the heavy-hitter speaking list is tilted toward
the "soft" or even Rockefeller Republicans, with Liddy Dole, Colin
Powell and the like getting top billing. Are those the people Dubya will
listen to if he is elected, or are they simply there to try to blunt
media criticism? Will the Republicans dare to touch issues like racial
quotas, the abusiveness of federal government agencies, or the "war on
private property in the guise of environmentalism," as my Orange County
Register colleague Steven Greenhut has put it?
Perhaps the most interesting sign might be whether the speakers at
the convention rail about excessive government spending and go out of
their way to contrast their desire for tax cuts with the president's
desire to veto anything that even smells like a general as opposed to a
vote-buying "targeted" tax reduction. George W. has offered token
support of most of the tax reductions the Congress has put on the
agenda, but one wonders if he is really enthusiastic about them.
There are a number of ways the Republicans could make this contrast
vivid to voters. One would be to challenge the way most people in the
media portray tax cuts. The typical way a story is done is to stress how
much repealing the notorious death tax, for example, will "cost" the
government over the next 10 years -- or 15 or 20 if they're feeling
rambunctious. I didn't run across a single news story that came close to
a phrase like "returned to the taxpayers" or "left in the hands of those
who earned it," which would be even more accurate and therefore much
less likely to appear in a typical news story.
The implicit assumption behind such a characterization, of course, is
that all money rightfully belongs to the government, and any that the
benevolent bureaucrats don't manage to get their hands on represents a
"cost." The implication is that society at large will pay a fearful
price if government doesn't get as much money in years to come as it
currently projects is likely to come to it under current law. The notion
that society at large might be better off if people spent their own
money rather than having central authorities make such decisions is not
given even cursory acknowledgment, not even to scoff at the obvious
fallacy embodied therein. Republicans who are interested in highlighting
the ways they are different from the Democrats would do well to
challenge the assumption that a tax cut represents a "cost" to society
rather than a benefit.
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It would be even more gratifying if more Republicans would go a
little farther and start characterizing a "federal budget surplus" as a
"tax overpayment" that morally and perhaps legally calls for a refund.
If a store charged you $10 but delivered only $8 worth of goods or
services, that would be an overcharge. A savvy consumer would expect a
refund and would certainly expect that if he pressed the point a refund
would forthcoming promptly. If a credit card company charged and you
paid $100 this month, but later discovered that you had only charged $75
worth of stuff, you would expect either a refund or a credit on next
month's bill and rightfully so even if times are pretty good and you
don't expect to get fired next week.
It should follow that if the federal government collected $200
billion more in taxes this year than it delivered in government
services, that was an overcharge for which a savvy consumer should
expect at least a refund, and a permanent adjustment in the billing
procedure so that such overcharges don't occur in the future. (We'll
leave aside for the moment that fact that if it had collected exactly as
much in taxes as it spent it would have delivered far more government,
by a factor of 10 or so, than I desire.)
Will Republicans speak the language of overcharge or overbilling when
referring to the federal budget "surplus?" Or will they confine
themselves to promising that if only that mean Mr. Clinton weren't
wielding a veto pen the taxpayers would have gotten at least a pittance
back? Or will they even mention the current little disagreements between
Republicans in Congress and the Democrat in the White House over the
issue of tax reductions during the coronation of Bush II?
Even though he has been Governor of Texas and has been running
actively for two years Dubya is still something of an unknown quantity
to most Americans. One suspects that his recent leads in the polls
reflect Clinton fatigue or something resembling horror that Gore and his
Sierra Club buddies will be running the government and appointing
Supreme Court justices more than enthusiasm for the Bushlet. For most
Americans his performance at the convention will be their first
introduction to whatever vision he might have for the country.
Will he talk about reducing the size, scope or power of the federal
government even a little bit? Or will Compassionate Conservatism
translate into socialism on the installment plan?