The irony of the Daschle-Bush dispute is that Daschle's tepid remarks did not even include the suggestion that the tax cut be postponed--a position advanced since last fall by Representative David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Though Daschle took the hits, it was Senator Edward Kennedy who finally outlined a plan to delay $300 billion in tax cuts for wealthy Americans. "These future tax cuts for those at the top are not part of the fight against the recession," the man who (with due deference to Jim Jeffords, who personally shuffled Senate control by exiting the GOP last year) is often identified as the most influential member of the Senate told the National Press Club. "Future additional tax breaks for the wealthy do not deserve higher priority than strengthening education--or covering prescription drugs under Medicare--or protecting Social Security--or meeting other urgent national priorities."
The Kennedy proposal differed from those advanced by Obey, Sanders and Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat whose First Things First Act would return the top marginal tax rate to 39.6 percent and freeze other tax rates for the wealthiest Americans to free up $340 billion for displaced workers and other needs. But it served as a signal that at least some Democrats are ready, in the words of Senator Russ Feingold, "to get back to the issues of domestic justice and domestic reform that should distinguish our party from the Republicans."
How many Democrats agree with him remains to be seen. There is no guarantee Daschle will embrace the Kennedy formula. House minority leader Richard Gephardt distanced himself from Daschle, and several conservative Democratic senators joined Republicans to criticize their majority leader for "overemphasizing" the damage done by Bush's tax policies. "There's not yet a clear Democratic agenda on economic issues," says Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich. "We're going to have to be in there, week after week, relentlessly working to raise the awareness within the Democratic Caucus of the need to address economic issues in a way that makes sense to working people."
The Progressive Caucus has proven it can win these intraparty fights. Last fall, its members battled the House Democratic leadership to include extended unemployment benefits in the weak Democratic alternative to the Administration's stimulus package. One member who joined meetings with the leadership recalls, "They fought us every way they could. We had to force their hand." Sanders believes it is vital that progressives convince the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate that pushing to postpone tax cuts for wealthy Americans is not just good economics but good politics. "We just say: It's a choice between bailing out billionaires at Enron or providing unemployment benefits for laid-off workers," says Sanders, adding, "If Democrats want to do anything this session, they have to have the guts to take on the tax cut."
Arguing against that view are Democratic strategists who claim the party would be wiser to avoid the tax issue, focusing instead on advancing limited stimulus proposals, investigating links between Enron executives and the Bush Administration, and opposing the worst excesses of the Republican stimulus package. (The GOP plan would provide billions in tax rebates for corporations, including Enron, which could receive $240 million.) There are plenty of Democratic insiders who quietly point to their party's redistricting successes and upcoming Republican retirements to say Democrats can win the House and Senate in the fall without picking a fight over Bush's tax policies. Even as Kennedy was preparing his call for a postponement of upper-level tax cuts, Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe pointed to the President's promise to veto any tax-policy tinkers and said the issue was "off the table."
"The positioning for election time is so blatant on the part of both parties that it is just crippling," says Feingold. "There is such pressure to just do fundraising and go to the election, rather than to deal with anything. It really is a problem, and I think only pressure from the people prevents it from happening."