The Daschle doctrine

George Will

1/14/2002 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Has any president's relationship with the country been as transformed in his first year as George W. Bush's was? Not Abraham Lincoln's. His year included secession, Bull Run and other unpleasantness, but public expectations for him started low. Not Teddy Roosevelt's. He was a pleasant surprise, but not a startling surprise. Not Herbert Hoover's, because the October 1929 stock market collapse was not understood as the beginning of a depression. Nothing in presidential history matches Bush's transformation. He limped out of Florida. Now he bestrides the globe. Tom Daschle, too, has been transformed since last Jan. 20, into Washington's pre-eminent Democrat. For a while, Republicans worried that Daschle's mild demeanor would anesthetize the public concerning his partisanship and policies. Now many Republicans regard Daschle as the Democrats' problem. The Daschleized Democratic Party has acquired five new wrinkles which cumulatively look like weirdness: By opposing (in the House) or stalling (in the Senate) ``fast track'' negotiating authority for trade agreements, Daschleized Democrats continue their party's apostasy from the long bipartisan consensus in favor of the free trade policies that have fueled the post-1945 prosperity. By refusing to allow a vote on a six-month moratorium on cloning, Daschleized Democrats announce themselves utterly untroubled by the sprint of science into morally uncharted territory. By expressing alarm over Bush's exit from the 1972 ABM Treaty, Daschleized Democrats oppose defenses against ballistic missiles unless Russian President Putin gives permission for defenses, and probably even if he does, and in any case they seem more exercised about the issue than Putin is. By adamant opposition to allowing Americans to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in approved private equity funds, Daschleized Democrats block people of modest means from the most direct path to participation in the economy's wealth creation. By blaming the recession that began in March on the tax cut that was not enacted until June and will mostly not happen for several years, Daschleized Democrats seem unable to read a calendar, operate a calculator or pass Economics 101. In his remarkably clumsy speech last week, Daschle said the tax cut ``probably made the recession worse,'' implying that higher taxes would mitigate the recession. Daschleized Democrats do not call for repeal of the cut (which 12 of Daschle's Democratic colleagues voted for), but they insist repeal would not be a tax increase. So this is Daschleized arithmetic: Your taxes under current law are X. Your taxes would be X plus Y under a new law repealing the older law. But the new law does not raise your taxes. In his speech, which praised ``fiscal discipline'' or ``fiscal integrity'' 11 times, Daschle implied that ``the rapidly disappearing surplus'' proves the absence of such discipline and integrity. So Daschlenomics holds that even during economic slowdowns, surpluses--government taxing more than existing programs require--are virtuous. He said this recession has produced ``the most dramatic fiscal deterioration in our nation's history.'' Well, senators speechifying are not under oath. However, measured sensibly--either as a percentage of the federal budget, or in terms of a deficit relative to the federal budget or GDP--the decline of government revenues in this recession is dramatically less than in most others. Just since World War II there have been larger percentage reductions of revenues in seven recessions. And eleven times there have been larger annual deteriorations in the fiscal position as a share of GDP than what occurred between fiscal 2000 and 2001. For the record, fiscal 2001 ended with a $127 billion surplus. Daschle denounces ``tax cuts that go disproportionately to the most affluent''--that is, across-the-board cuts that allow all Americans to keep proportionally more of what they earn. However, he adores the Agriculture Act of 2001 (after Sept. 11, ludicrously renamed the Farm Security Act) which gives, mostly to the affluent, money that the recipients have not earned. Farm incomes are expected to hit record levels this year, and already the average farm household has an income 17 percent above the national average and a net worth double the national average--plus a lower cost of living in rural areas. And most of the subsidies Daschle favors do not go to average farm households: two-thirds of the subsidies go to 10 percent of the subsidy recipients, most of whom earn much more than $250,000 annually. Thus is ``fairness'' Daschleized. In Daschle's South Dakota, 70 percent of farms--the third-highest percentage in the nation--are subsidized. Which is one reason why the farm bill, an assault on ``fiscal integrity,'' was such a wartime priority for him.