Gephardt's elephant

Posted: May 08, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- A focused moment in last Saturday night's discursive debate in Columbia, S.C., by nine Democratic presidential hopefuls came when Sen. John Edwards, his once high hopes fading fast, took dead aim at the proposal that has generated momentum for Rep. Richard Gephardt's candidacy. By raising taxes to pay for universal health care, said Edwards, Gephardt "is taking almost a trillion dollars out of the pocket of working families making $30,000 or $40,000 a year."

None of the other candidates likes the Gephardt plan, mainly because the incipient campaign's first new idea came from somebody else. Only Edwards, however, admitted there was an elephant on the stage at the University of South Carolina: a tax increase for a $40,000-a-year family of four that eventually would cost it at least $1,600 a year. That admission would undermine the Democratic line of President Bush's tax cuts benefiting only the rich.

The dilemma for Dick Gephardt is intense. Freed from the eight-year burden of leading the minority House Democrats, he looks more like the fresh-faced St. Louis Alderman elected to Congress in 1976. At this very early stage, he is becoming a front-runner for the presidential nomination. Yet, the plan that has propelled him to the head of the pack would be a heavy burden to carry against George W. Bush.

This is a brand new Gephardt position. On NBC's "Meet the Press" Jan. 27, 2002, as he prepared another failed campaign to make him speaker of the House, Gephardt resisted moderator Tim Russert's interrogation about rolling back Bush tax cuts. "I just don't see any sense," he said, in bucking the president's adamant position. On Feb. 23, 2003, after another losing election, he gave Russert the same answer: "I'm not one who tilts at windmills."

Two months later, Gephardt changed his mind. To finance government funding for business-provided health care, he would roll back Bush tax cuts passed by Congress in 2001 -- including those that have already taken effect.

This is heavy going for that $40,000-a-year family of four. Gephardt would return the present 10 percent tax rate on $12,000 of income back to 15 percent, costing this family $600 a year. The child tax credit would return to $500 from $700 in 2005 and its gradual increase to $1,000 in 2010. That increases taxes $400 immediately for the two-child family, rising to $1,000 in 2010. The total tax increase would be at least $1,600 in 2010, not counting other tax breaks ended by Gephardt. The extra taxes paid over six years, starting with President Gephardt's first year, total $6,800. If this family's breadwinners work for a company that now provides health care, they get only pain from Gephardt.

Bush's opponents can make a debatable argument that voiding future tax cuts does not constitute increased taxes, but they cannot credibly make the same claim about repealing the 10 percent tax rate and the $600 tax credit now in effect. Yet, only Edwards among Gephardt's rivals admits the elephant is there.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, a successful businesswoman and strong supporter of Sen. Joe Lieberman's candidacy, was asked on CNN's "Crossfire" Monday whether Lieberman agreed that repealing the Bush tax cut would be a tax increase. "No," she replied quickly, "he does not agree with that." Requests for an answer from Lieberman were unavailing, but the question cannot be avoided if Gephardt is the nominee.

Gephardt's prospective road is promising. He can win the caucuses next Jan. 19 in Iowa, repeating his 1988 victory there. That could push him to a respectable finish in New Hampshire Jan. 27 (where Sen. John Kerry of neighboring Massachusetts is heavily favored). Gephardt would all but clinch the nomination by winning Feb. 3 in South Carolina, where his friend and colleague -- Rep. James Clyburn, the state's only black congressman -- controls 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic primary vote.

Neutral Democratic strategists, while admiring Gephardt's candidacy, privately suggest he must amend his proposal so that it does not increase tax rates now in effect. That is patently impossible, without wrecking the whole scheme. The candidate surging toward the Democratic presidential nomination is advocating higher taxes on ordinary Americans, and no campaign spin can alter that reality.