The last deficit hawk

Posted: Apr 14, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush was prevailed on by aides two weeks ago to take time out from the war against Saddam Hussein to see Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio. Voinovich, normally a regular Republican, was ruining President Bush's tax plans. Brought down Pennsylvania Ave. to the White House, Voinovich spurned the president's entreaties to support him. Republican operatives in the capital, appalled at the apostasy, cursed the senator.

That same week, Voinovich voted against an unsuccessful Democratic effort to add an extra $1 billion for port security to the emergency appropriations bill funding the war. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSSC), probing for weaknesses in Voinovich's re-election prospects next year, called him too partisan. It accused him of "marching in lockstep with the national Republican leadership" and putting "support for his right-wing party leaders" ahead of constituent interests.

Such a lethal crossfire is the lot of a dying political breed: the deficit hawk, who obsesses on an accounting number as the lodestar of economic well-being. In quest of bipartisanship, Voinovich in fact has simultaneously energized Democrats who want to spend more and antagonized Republicans who want to tax less. While making life unnecessarily difficult for Bush, Voinovich won no gratitude from Democrats who suddenly perceive him as a vulnerable candidate in 2004.

"I consider myself a deficit hawk," Voinovich declared on March 21, embracing Herbert Hoover's strategy of fighting the Great Depression by raising taxes. Dwight D. Eisenhower's priority on balanced budgets killed tax cuts, generated three recessions and ushered in a decade of Democratic dominance. Richard Nixon maintained high taxes in the face of a sluggish economy, and Gerald Ford resisted tax reduction. Not until Ronald Reagan did Republicans cast away Hoover's legacy. Voinovich is a throwback to a bygone ideology of the GOP.

Voinovich is only one of four Republican senators who have forced Bush to resort to parliamentary contortions to permit adoption of his tax cut. Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and, to a much lesser extent, Olympia Snowe of Maine are New England liberals, and Sen. John McCain is a notorious party maverick. But George Voinovich is different, and that is what antagonizes the Republican establishment.

At age 66, Voinovich has been Ohio's premier Republican vote getter over the past quarter century. He has held public office almost continuously since 1966 starting with the state legislature, including eight years as mayor of Cleveland and eight years as governor. Since his election to the Senate in 1998, he has consistently voted the conservative line (including support for Bush's 2001 tax cut that was opposed by McCain). Why defy the party whip now on Bush's primary economic initiative? "I came here to do something about the deficit," he has explained.

Voinovich's role has been magnified by the difficulty in getting the contemporary Senate to act. He and his three Republican colleagues have opposed putting the Bush tax-cut numbers in a budget resolution that would make it possible for the Senate to vote for the tax bill itself without being threatened by a filibuster. Since this is only a procedural expedient to permit a vote, Republican partisans are particularly infuriated with Voinovich's dissent.

Nevertheless, the Bush White House's political premise is that the only bad incumbent Republican senator is a defeated one, and so has denied nothing to Voinovich. Treasury Secretary John Snow spent a full day campaigning for him in Ohio. Sen. Rick Santorum, chairman of the Senate Republican conference, is sponsoring an April 29 fund-raiser for him. They hope that if the tax cut comes before the Senate later this year on an up-or-down roll call, Voinovich would not deny Bush the potentially deciding vote.

The rub is that Voinovich's obstinacy, including denial of the president's personal plea, makes it politically uncomfortable to change later. The DSSC has announced a Voinovich Project to keep watch on and trumpet any inconstancy in his voting record.

Life is indeed difficult for the last deficit hawk. George Voinovich not only lacks a defined constituency but also any ideology beyond perpetuation of Herbert Hoover's misconception that high taxes can restore prosperity.