WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- It is a measure of Republican concern about the prospects of Bob Dole that they seem to be putting emphasis on proposing a significant reduction in taxes as a centerpiece of his campaign.
It is true, of course, that one of the axioms of politics is that you cannot go wrong giving money back to the voters. But there are elements of today's political context that suggest this strategy may not be so effective in Mr. Dole's campaign to unseat President Clinton.
The most significant roadblock may be simply the cynicism of the electorate of 1996. One opinion poll after another shows the voters don't believe much of anything politicians tell them. And that means they aren't likely to believe Bob Dole when he promises to cut their taxes. After all, Mr. Clinton made the same kind of promise four years ago and look what happened.
The same polls indicate, to be sure, that Mr. Dole enjoys a higher level of trust than Mr. Clinton. But on this issue the Republican candidate would be turning his back on so many years -- as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and then majority leader -- of resisting tax-cutting schemes in favor of reducing the federal deficit.
Mr. Dole's complaint with supply-side economics always has been that the promised increases in revenue wouldn't offset the costs of the tax reductions. Now he is being pressed by some advisers to take the position that if the government cuts taxes $600 billion over six years, $240 billion will come back in higher revenues growing out of increased business activity.
That argument is precisely the one made for Reaganomics 15 years ago and the one that produced a tripling of the national debt that has always been so much of a problem for Mr. Dole.
The tentative tax plan leaked from the Dole campaign also relies on a number of one-time savings to offset the rest of the $600 billion -- the kind of things Mr. Dole and other deficit hawks always disparaged as gimmicks. It would be truly mind-boggling, for example, if the Republicans produce a plan that relies on the proceeds of an income-tax amnesty. You don't need a long memory to recall how those same Republicans derided Democrat Michael S. Dukakis when he proposed such an amnesty during the 1988 campaign.
The difficult task of finding offsetting revenues also could expose the Republicans to a backlash. If Mr. Dole leaves any ambiguity about where expenses are to be reduced, the Democrats will accuse the Republicans of once again planning to reduce Social Security benefits. It is a tactic that has worked before and would work again.
Finally, Mr. Dole has no reason to believe he can offer tax reduction without something similar coming from candidate Clinton, although the Democratic plan might be far more heavily weighted against the affluent and perhaps more targeted to education.
What voters really want
The basic flaw in the tax strategy, however, is that it relies on a view of American politics that is no longer valid. Voters don't sit down with checklists of issues and then choose their president on the basis of which one's views most closely coincide with their own.
Instead, the voters are looking for someone who seems to understand their concerns and to have a vision of where the country should be going in the next four years. Mr. Clinton was elected in 1992 not because of his specific issue positions but because he responded to demand from the voters for change in the way things were working then.
Now, after four years, the evidence of the polls suggests that voters are still unhappy about how the system is operating and still uneasy about their own futures. A clear majority of Americans believe the country is "off on the wrong track" rather than "headed in the right direction."
Ordinarily that would mean the incumbent president is politically vulnerable. But Mr. Dole has to persuade people he is a realistic and superior alternative, which he won't do simply by promising tax cuts.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 7/31/96