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By Richard S. Dunham One thing good about a straw man: You can keep punching away at him all you want, and he'll never hit you back. That's one reason politicians love to cart straw men around with them on the campaign trail.
President Bush thinks he has found the biggest, softest straw man in the land. His political advisers believe it will give the Republican Party an upper hand in the 2002 budget battle on Capitol Hill and in the midterm elections next November, when Congress is up for grabs.
Bush's newfound companion? Meet Mr. Tax-and-Spend Democrat. Introduced during a Jan. 4 appearance in California and reprised during a heartland tour on Jan. 14-15, the straw man was center stage with the Republican President. Bush even trotted him out during a photo opportunity with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit.
POLITICAL POISON. "I think raising taxes in the midst of a recession is wrong economic policy," Bush said during the photo-op. "It would be a huge mistake. It's bad for American workers, it hurts when it comes to creating jobs, [and] I'm confident that the American people agree with me as well."
Good rhetoric. Trouble is, Mr. Tax-and-Spend Democrat doesn't really exist, so he never speaks or talks back. None of the top Democrats on Capitol Hill is willing to endorse a tax increase during a downturn. But by attacking a straw man, and repeating the attack often enough, Bush hopes to inextricably link Democrats to tax hikes.
Dems know it's political poison to be seen as wanting to raise taxes in the midst of a recession. "I don't even think we should go anywhere near the tax-increase neighborhood," says one veteran party operative. So as Democrats advocate new rounds of spending on everything from homeland security to health care, they avoid endorsing tax hikes as a way to pay for the proposals.
AMMO FROM TEDDY. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Bush's personal friend, gave the President ammunition on Jan. 16 when the prominent Democratic liberal endorsed delaying implementation of rate reductions in the 2001 tax cut for the wealthiest 1% of Americans. "Future additional tax breaks for the wealthy don't deserve higher priority than strengthening education, covering prescription drugs under Medicare, or protecting Social Security, or meeting other urgent national priorities," Kennedy declared at the National Press Club.
Anticipating GOP attacks, Kennedy said, under his proposal, "No taxpayer would pay a higher tax rate than they pay now." That hasn't stopped Republicans from equating a delay in future tax cuts with a tax increase. "The Democratic position is to favor higher taxes," Bush Budget Director Mitchell Daniels said in response.
Wait a minute. That's like Democrats accusing the GOP of gutting Social Security every time a Republican tries to cap or reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. The GOP always cried foul when Democrats did so in the past. Straw man, they would say. They were right, but now Daniels is pulling the same stunt.
WHY DUKAKIS TANKED. The sad truth is, however, that pounding on straw men sometimes resonates with voters. At the moment, it seems to be working for the President. In a Jan. 11 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, 58% of voters said they approve of Bush's handling of tax policy, vs. 28% who disapprove, and 59% favor his handling of the economy, vs. 27% who are against it. Bush's post-September 11 political glow is even rubbing off on his party. The poll gives Republicans a double-digit lead over Democrats on economic issues after the parties were dead even in July.
That's why the tax-hike straw man is so effective. If Democrats join the battle and go after Bush for exaggerating the truth, they risk being drawn into a lose-lose debate. So Bush keeps pounding away.
Democrats may think the President is being unfair, but they also know they can't afford to ignore the attacks for too long. That's what Michael Dukakis did in 1988, when George H.W. Bush hammered at the Massachusetts governor's "values" because he vetoed a bill mandating the recitation of the pledge of allegiance in state schools and was a "card-carrying member of the ACLU." Dukakis thought it was ridiculous to suggest he was out of the mainstream and didn't respond to the factually accurate charges. After Bush's countless repetitions without adequate rebuttal, a negative image stuck.
BAD MEMORIES. A similar danger is now growing for Democrats. Most don't want to go back to the future in declaring -- as Walter Mondale did at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 -- that, if elected, they will raise taxes. Bill Clinton worked for eight years to redefine his party as a fiscally responsible group. But the polling evidence is starting to show that, in this post-Clinton era, the old perceptions of Democrats are starting to reemerge when it comes to taxes, government spending, and national security.
That's worrisome to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Its president, Al From, and other Democrats are plotting a strategy of trying to engage the Republicans in a more intellectual discussion of economic policy as the campaign year progresses.
But here's a more likely scenario for this fall: Wrestlemania, featuring Republicans whomping on the Mr. Tax-and-Spend Democrat straw man. Democrats, too, are likely to trot out their own favorite straw men: the Republican Social Security vampire (ready to suck the life out of the federal retirement plan) and Mr. Fat Cat (a figure that looks like a wealthy corporate contributor, with a big cigar sticking out of his mouth).
If somebody lights a match, 2002 could be a combustible election year. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online