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Boosted by Iraq Victory, Bush Wants Tax Win

No one can accuse President Bush of failing to be a conviction politician or of refusing to spend political capital to achieve his goals. [IMGCAP(1)]

He risked his presidency on the idea of “regime change” in Iraq and has won — so far. Now, he’s going for broke to convince a dubious Senate to give him at least a $550 billion tax cut.

On the merits, it remains to be seen whether either the Iraq war or Bush’s tax cuts will be a long-term benefit for the United States, but in the short term the war’s success has boosted Bush’s political support for the tax fight.

According to the liberal Democracy Corps’ monthly polling review, “Military victory in Iraq has brought about a surge of optimism in public opinion about the direction of our country and the economy.

“Nearly 20 polls released over the last two weeks show consistently high support for the military action in Iraq and President Bush’s handling of the issue.

“They show a majority of Americans once again feeling that the country is going in the right direction and consumer confidence has staged a strong rally after reaching a 10-year low less than a month earlier.”

Bush’s overall approval ratings now average 70 percent, up from 62 percent in March and 58 percent in April. Perhaps significantly, though, Bush’s ratings are not in the 90 percent range he recorded after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and his father scored after the first Gulf War.

The public’s notion of whether the country is on the right or wrong track has gone from negative to positive, but Bush’s approval ratings on the economy remain lackluster.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 49 percent of voters approve of Bush’s economic performance and 42 percent disapprove. The same sentiment was reflected in other polls.

In a climate of continuing international danger — from terrorist groups, North Korea and Iran — Bush is likely to go into the 2004 election with an advantage over Democrats, who consistently enjoy less public trust on national security issues than Republicans.

Democrats, though, are hoping that the election will turn on the condition of the economy and that Bush can be beaten the way his father was in 1992, despite a military victory in 1991.

However, in terms of economic philosophy, Bush is not his father’s son. He’s Ronald Reagan’s. Bush’s father had no firm convictions about economics and got badgered by Democrats and his own staff into violating his “no new taxes” campaign pledge, splitting his own party.

This Bush, by contrast, is a hard-line supply sider who believes that the answer to any economic problem, including budget deficits, is tax cuts — the bigger the better.

So, with victory won in Iraq, Bush has launched a national campaign to win passage of $550 billion in tax cuts — with more to follow.

Because Bush is also such a hard-line partisan, his ability to attract Democrats to his side has now shrunk to almost zero. In 2001, he won support from eight Democratic Senators for his previous $1.6 trillion cut.

In 2002, though, he campaigned vigorously against some of those Democrats, providing no incentive except fear for any Democrats in the narrowly divided Senate to join him this year. So far, he has just one, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.).

Bush is now forced to campaign to win over wavering Senators of his own party, namely George Voinovich (Ohio), Olympia Snowe (Maine), John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa), who lined up against his $550 billion before Congress’ spring break.

Voinovich and Snowe are leaders of a group of moderates, the Republican Main Street Partnership, that forced Bush to retreat from his original bid of $726 billion in tax cuts over 10 years to $550 billion in the House. The Senate passed a lid of $350 billion.

The $200 billion difference has caused considerable discord among Republicans. House GOP leaders are furious with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) for failing to tell them he’d signed off on $350 billion to secure passage of a budget resolution.

An unnamed White House aide told The Washington Post that Frist would be told “you let the president down” by agreeing to the lower number.

Republican Senate aides say Frist has apologized for failing to tell House leaders about the deal but that, with a mere two-vote majority and limited power over Senators, “not even Lyndon Johnson” could have produced a higher number than $350 billion.

The arm-twisting power wielded by Johnson (D-Texas) as Senate Majority Leader of the 1950s now has to be exercised by Bush, who was busy fighting Saddam Hussein while the budget fight unfolded early this month.

Bush is using the bully pulpit first, with a series of speeches calling — as in Voinovich’s home state last week — for a “robust” tax cut rather than a “little bitty” one. One-on-one persuasion sessions will follow.

It’s conceivable, if Bush is willing to negotiate, that a compromise could be worked out somewhere between $350 billion and $550 billion.

Snowe expressed willingness to stretch to $450 billion if “offsets” could be found such as the closing of tax shelters, though not cuts in Medicare, Medicaid or veterans’ benefits.

The Washington Post suggested in an editorial that Bush “take $350 billion and run.” For sure, he should take $450 billion if he can get it. He could call it another victory.

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