WASHINGTON -- Ever since presidential nominee Walter Mondale shot himself in the foot in 1984 by candidly declaring his intention to raise taxes if elected, Republicans have had notable success in sticking the old tax-and-spend label on Democrats. Candidate Bill Clinton survived the effort in 1992 but the real test comes now as many voters increasingly perceive Clinton's proposed taxes as no more than the old Democratic formula for governing from a supposedly "new Democrat."
Clinton hopes to avoid the tax-and-spend label by setting up a deficit-reduction trust fund into which all revenues from his new tax proposals will go to guarantee reaching his goal of cutting $496 billion from the national debt over five years. Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and other Republicans have been quick to dismiss the move as a gimmick, but it does have the potential of convincing taxpayers that the new tax money won't go into more old-fashioned Democratic social spending.
Now that Clinton is feeling the effects in public opinion of the Republican efforts to cast him as just another Democratic tax-and-spender, it's puzzling why he has waited this long to propose the trust fund, rather than making it an explicit part of his original disclosure of new taxes.
Back in 1984, at a National Governors Conference in Nashville a week after Mondale's own new-taxes declaration, the same Bill Clinton as governor of Arkansas had a solution. Mondale, he said then, needed to specify that the additional revenue raised would be placed in a trust fund to be used only for deficit reduction. But it was not until weeks later that Mondale released his detailed tax plan including just such an earmarked fund.
By that time, President Ronald Reagan had done his political work effectively. "My opponent," Reagan said, "has spent his political life supporting more taxes and more spending. For him, raising taxes is a first resort. For me, it is a last resort." For all practical purposes, the election of 1984 was over.
Last fall, President George Bush attempted to hang the tax-and-spend label on Clinton too, but by that time the Arkansas governor had done a very effective job of selling himself to the voters as a "new Democrat." Clinton was saying that if elected he would raise taxes, but only on the wealthy, and he talked about giving long-suffering middle-income taxpayers a break. A plurality of voters seemed to believe him, or at least were so determined to dump Bush that the tax-and-spend label didn't stick on Clinton sufficiently to beat him.
Besides, nailing Clinton as a tax-and-spender was not the centerpiece of the Bush attack on him. Bush's strategists elected to make that charge only tangential to raising the issues of "character and trust" against the Arkansas governor, growing out of the earlier campaign allegations of womanizing and draft-dodging.
Once elected, Clinton opted for the 1984 Mondale approach of candor with the American people about the fiscal dilemma facing the country, with the critical distinction of applying the candor after the votes were in.
Now he acknowledges that he has a credibility problem. As he said in New York the other day, "credibility is a difficult thing to come by in Washington today . . . I don't blame the people for being distrustful of what they hear coming out of Washington."
Whether the creation of a deficit-reduction trust fund will give the new president a shield against the Republicans' intensified effort to paint him as Son of Fritz Mondale will depend on whether there is a public sense that the deficit really is being reduced, even as Clinton advocates more spending on some domestic programs.
He will have to demonstrate that such spending results from spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, something that Democrats have seldom had much luck doing.
But Clinton's credibility problem goes beyond deficit reduction. His backtracking on other campaign promises makes him vulnerable to the Republicans as another old Democrat no matter how he tries to present himself.
But at least the trust-fund idea indicates he's well aware of his perception problem.