Robert Novak

Democratic candidate Bobby Casey was doing well debating Republican Sen. Rick Santorum on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday when moderator Tim Russert pressed him to tell how he would fulfill his pledge to balance the federal budget. "Which programs would you cut?" Russert asked. Casey did not name one program.

"There are lots of ways to cut," said Casey. He quickly added "the first thing you have to do" is raise taxes on the top 1 percent of income by rolling back Bush tax reductions. He suggested closing "some tax loopholes" -- mentioning only "offshore tax loopholes" (an issue ignored since Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign). Drawing on experience in Pennsylvania state government as former auditor general and current treasurer, Casey said, "Sometimes you try to limit the number of consultants."

That dismal response will not lose for Casey what has been considered the surest Democratic chance for a Republican-held Senate seat. The problem facing Democrats is the dilemma if they gain control of the government in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Casey, a moderate liberal, is typical of Democrats unwilling to downsize social welfare programs. After pummeling Republicans about budget deficits, their only recourse is higher taxes -- a course fraught with political and economic perils.

Robert P. Casey Jr. is the son of a courageous anti-abortion governor with a name that is magic in Pennsylvania politics. But old Democratic hands, recalling Casey's collapse in the 2002 primary for governor, have feared Santorum's reputation as a strong finisher. Indeed, recent surveys by Quinnipiac, Keystone and Rasmussen show Casey's once commanding lead reduced to single digits (though Gallup still shows an 18-point lead). With Casey not known for being too fast on his feet, Democrats have worried about him going head-to-head with a political slasher like Santorum.

But Casey was well briefed by consultant Paul Begala, a longtime servitor of the Casey family. Furthermore, Casey has the Democratic advantage of campaigning against an unpopular war and an unpopular president.

Only when Russert asked his balanced budget question did Casey justify his reputation as a less than stalwart political debater. All he could think of immediately was "to repeal the tax cut for people making over $200,000 a year" -- a tax increase for the rich. Russert responded that would bring in only $56 billion a year against a deficit of over $200 billion. However, its negative effect on the economy probably would produce much less than the estimated revenue. Not surprisingly, the recap of the debate playing on Casey's website eliminated the entire dialogue about spending.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

©Creators Syndicate