'Secret plan' for tax cut won't work for Bush ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- The most mind-blowing statement of the past 10 days was probably President Bush's declaration at a press conference that he didn't intend to get "all bogged down" in the details of his proposal for an across-the-board tax cut.

For those with long memories, it recalled Richard M. Nixon's insistence in 1968 that he had a plan -- it became known as "the secret plan" -- to end the war in Vietnam but didn't want to discuss it during the campaign. In those more innocent days, Nixon got away with it as the press declared a de facto moratorium on the Vietnam issue. As it turned out, the "plan" didn't become effective for some five years.

Bush can expect no similar free ride. He is, in effect, saying to the voters that they should trust him to do the right thing on taxes without specifying now what that would be. But this is a plea for trust from the same president who made the "read my lips" promise as a candidate four years ago. That bit of history hardly provides an auspicious context for trust.

The context is also inhospitable because the economy and, as a result, the tax issue is such a preoccupying concern of the electorate this time around. This is not a campaign in which the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag will be enough of an issue to win the election.

There is no mystery about the president's willingness to promise tax relief. The oldest rule in politics is that they don't kill Santa Claus. And Bush already has said "I will do whatever I have to do to be re-elected." The promise is part of an overall strategy to depict Democratic nominee Bill Clinton as another "tax and spend" liberal in the tradition of George McGovern, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

But neither is there any mystery about why he doesn't want to get specific. For one thing, any proposal for tax reduction has to be accompanied by proposals for offsetting reductions in spending unless the president wants to frighten the wits out of the business community and financial markets by proposing even higher federal deficits than the $400 billion already in sight this year.

Nor can all of such reductions be accomplished without causing any political pain. But no candidate wants to start his campaign by telling voters he is going to put a lid on Medicare and Medicaid payments, without which any talk about spending reductions is clearly frivolous.

This, of course, is not the first occasion on which Bush has tried to buy time on the economic issue. When the concern about the economy began to crystallize last fall as voters realized the recession was not over after all, the president promised a new grand plan in his State of the Union address in January. When the time came, he offered essentially a rehash of his earlier proposals centered on a reduction in the capital gains tax.

Implicit in the Bush refusal to discuss specifics is a view of the electorate that seems curiously detached from reality. The opinion polls all show Bush's approval record on domestic issues at rock bottom, low enough to sink him Nov. 3 unless he succeeds in so damaging Clinton that voters are afraid to take a chance with the Democrat. Bush's position on the issue is so weak, in fact, that there was talk at one point of bringing James Baker back not just to run the White House and campaign but with the promise that he would be an "economic czar" in a second term.

The campaign still has more than nine weeks to run, so it is doubtful that Bush will be able to sail along the entire trail without becoming more specific on the tax question and the spending cuts, as well. Although he is somewhat vague about the deficit himself, Clinton has specified that he will raise the taxes of those with incomes above $200,000 while lowering them for the middle class and spending some of the money on the infrastructure.

That is what campaigns are supposed to be about -- a contest of ideas and programs and policy proposals from two candidates on which the voters can base an informed judgment.

All the evidence this year is that the voters are demanding just such a dialogue; that was the message in the early reaction to both Paul Tsongas and Ross Perot.

Simply asking the voters to "trust me" won't cut it.

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