WASHINGTON -- Sen. Rick Santorum, a first-termer from the famous Republican class of '94 who is a prime Democratic election target in Pennsylvania this year, went to suburban Philadelphia (Montgomery County) this week to urge across-the-board tax cuts. That hardly seems exceptional for a conservative Republican except that it contradicts the liberal mantra heard inside the Washington Beltway.
The national capital's anti-tax reduction bloc -- politicians, experts, journalists -- has put out the line that Republicans in close races have abandoned presidential candidate George W. Bush's proposal to grant tax reductions to everybody. "They're running away from it everywhere," Democratic general chairman Ed Rendell told me on CNN's "Capital Gang" last Saturday night. "All the Republicans out there in tough races are disavowing the tax cuts."
Why would the Democratic Party's leader so aggressively assert that his GOP opponents want no part of a proposal that he contends is self-defeating? Because tax reduction is potentially the most lethal weapon in the Republican arsenal. That explains the anti-tax drumbeat insisting that people really don't want their taxes cut. Intimidation by such talk could explain why Republican candidates, Gov. Bush included, have not called for tax cuts more insistently.
During last weekend's television discussion, my fellow columnist Al Hunt challenged me to "go out and report" to confirm his claim that Republican candidates have abandoned tax reduction. I did, and it instead confirmed my contentions that they have not. Contrary to Rendell, all endangered Senate candidates are talking about tax cuts, and certainly not Al Gore's targeted reductions requiring the recipients to undergo arduous personal qualifying tests.
I asked Santorum whether he endorsed every jot and tittle of Bush's tax plan. "I'm not familiar with every jot and tittle of his plan," the senator replied. "But I believe in across-the-board tax reductions -- for all taxpayers, not just those who do what the government wants them to do."
Indeed, Bush might have been well-advised to follow Santorum's example by offering a broad outline of his tax plans (as he did with Social Security reforms). Like Santorum, many Senate candidates embrace the Bush plan in concept rather than detail. Some -- including Sen. Spencer Abraham in Michigan and Rep. Rick Lazio in New York -- advocate lower capital gains taxation, which inexplicably is missing from the Bush plan.
Whatever the details, Republican candidates in tough Senate races stress tax reduction as no Democrat does. Abraham calls for "a much-needed tax cut." Lazio proposes innovative across-the-board relief: deduction for income tax purposes of payroll taxes paid. In Missouri, Sen. John Ashcroft praises the "Senate's tax relief bill." In Washington, Sen. Slade Gorton champions "radical reform of the tax code" for the long haul and "needed tax relief" for now.
The public attempt by Democratic leaders to label tax cuts as something nobody wants belies the pandemonium at the White House over possible passage of the merest tax cut. Repeal of the "Spanish-American War Tax" (so-called because a federal excise was levied on telephone calls to finance that long-ago conflict) is provoking President Clinton's veto of the unrelated, non-controversial appropriations bill that contains it. Anything to avoid Republicans getting credit for tax cuts that supposedly nobody wants.
That is why Vice President Gore says Bush would "take the entire surplus and squander it on a big tax cut." In fact, Bush's tax cut is estimated at $1.3 trillion over the next decade, while the non-Social Security surplus most recently is predicted by the Congressional Budget Office at $3.3 trillion.
Then, why have congressional Republicans replaced tax cuts with a plan dedicating 90 percent of the surplus to troglodyte reduction of the national debt? They haven't. At least, the more sophisticated haven't (one knowledgeable Senate Republican calls the plan "goofy economically"). But since Clinton is committed to veto all tax reductions escaping the Capitol Hill grinder, the Republicans are trying to save the surplus from runaway spending.
That is only a temporary expedient. Republicans remain the tax-cutting party, as reflected by their approach to closely contested campaigns -- including Bush's. Democrats would not be lecturing the GOP on how unpopular the party's position is if the specter of tax cuts did not worry them.