The loudest applause during George W. Bush’s first budget address to Congress–a thumping, shouting, jump-to-your-feet outpouring of enthusiasm–erupted in response to his first mention of his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. Coming at the end of a masterful but deceitful description, with more concealed trapdoors than a funhouse ride (they have the fun and we get taken for a ride), of how he could do everything from funding Social Security to paying down the debt and have money “still left over,” Bush’s proposal argued for returning that money “to the people who earned it in the first place.”
The country is not buying. The latest Pew Research Center poll finds that only 19 percent of Americans think the current budget surplus should be used for a tax cut, and 79 percent believe the proposed Bush tax cut will most benefit the wealthy. Meanwhile, 60 percent want any surplus used for domestic programs as well as Social Security and Medicare.
Why, then, was the response to Bush’s tax cut proposal so enthusiastic? Perhaps for the same reason that the words “campaign finance reform” never crossed Bush’s lips, an omission Senator John McCain wryly noted in a CNN interview. The Wall Street Journal reported the morning after the speech that industry groups have formed a coalition to push the tax cuts in what one White House adviser described as “the largest PR campaign this party has ever conducted.” The same adviser went on to say that the effort “will test if we can use the power of the White House and congressional control and the lobbying world to work our will.”
With the cat thus out of the bag, Bush’s budget should be pronounced dead on arrival. Now is the moment for the minority party to put forth a sensible alternative: No new tax breaks for the wealthy. An earlier, bigger check–either in the form of a tax credit or a “prosperity dividend”–for middle- and low-income earners, to jump-start the economy. Prescription drug coverage for seniors and affordable healthcare for all. Investment in schools and teachers’ salaries. Investment to combat the growing shortage of affordable rental housing. Electoral reforms that will insure that every vote is counted.
In opposition, Democrats find it difficult to speak with one voice. A few have already thrown in their lot with Bush. Others are looking to deal. Still others seem stuck on paying down the debt as their prime concern. Thus it is vital that progressives in the party–and the increasingly vibrant base of the party that is central to its electoral hopes–speak out independently to force the debate. Here the Progressive Caucus has done well by pushing its prosperity dividend, which would give every American a $300 check in contrast to Bush’s tax giveaway to the rich. Responsible Wealth has done remarkable work organizing the statement by about 120 of America’s richest men and women against estate-tax repeal. The large coalition of groups convened to fight the tax cuts–under the leadership of progressive unions, civil rights groups and the public interest community–will help stiffen the backbone of faltering legislators. The Campaign for America’s Future’s plan for creating a progressive leadership organization will help define and broadcast the choice we face.
Bush has benefited, of course, from the continuing press focus on former President Clinton’s tawdry unpardonables and his legacy of political timidity and tactical retreat. Now, progressives must force Democrats to shed that defensiveness. The country did not vote for the Bush agenda, and the vast majority will not benefit from it. Time to go on the attack. This is a fight that can be won.