DESPERATION is perhaps the kindest and gentlest explanation for Bob Dole's late-life conversion from deficit hawk to voodoo doctor. Once a caustic critic of the Reagan-era supply-side economics that quadrupled the national debt, the Republican presidential nominee is now advocating huge tax cuts that make a mockery of his balanced-budget avowals.
In repudiating policies that marked his 35-year career on Capitol Hill, Mr. Dole is adhering to the first obligation of a politician seeking power. That is to win election. All the kudos from orthodox economists will benefit him naught if he cannot defeat President Clinton. Once in office, the fudging can begin.
Running 20 points behind the Democratic incumbent, the former Senate majority leader made his tough, bold offer to cut income tax rates 15 percent and halve the capital gains tax, knowing this was one issue on which even the increasingly conservative Mr. Clinton could not outdo him. But by taking this approach, he risked ceding to the Democrats another very popular issue -- cutting the deficit -- that Republicans once thought they owned.
Like the GOP experiment with supply-side tax cuts in 1981, which Reagan budget director David Stockman later called "an utter, mind-numbing catastrophe," Mr. Dole's plan rests on the theory that a shot of adrenalin supposedly changing the economy from slow-growth to fast-growth will produce a revenue gusher that will pay for the goodies offered taxpayers.
What is dubious about this whole business is that it rests on huge, unspecified spending cuts, huge revenue growth that requires a leap of faith and an utter refusal to face up to ballooning costs of those sacred-cow middle class entitlements -- Social Security and Medicare.
Mr. Dole assures senior citizens he won't hit on Medicare, but by proposing to roll back increased taxes on Social Security benefits for the affluent, he would deprive the Medicare fund of $31 billion. No wonder one of his closest advisers, former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman, signed a Concord Coalition manifesto deploring "Christmas in July" wish lists.
Will this tax cut plan, selection of a vice presidential running mate and next week's Republican National Convention rejuvenate Bob Dole's candidacy? That is the political question of the moment. But if he succeeds and overtakes Mr. Clinton, the question of the future is whether he can or even wants to fulfill an utterly irresponsible campaign promise.
Pub Date: 8/06/96