Bush can leave no tax cut behind

This week the White House takes its show on the road to push its plan to cut taxes by $726 billion over the next 10 years. Senior members of the administration will appear at 80 events in 30 states, where they will sing the praises of the plan and promise it will bring the economy back to life.

In the Senate, members of the president's own party have made it clear they really aren't interested in the whole cut - they'd like to see it at about $350 billion - but the president pushes on, undeterred. Of course he's made an accommodation. The White House isn't calling the tax cut a tax cut anymore. Now it's "the president's jobs and growth package."

Concerned that the public's taste for tax cuts is diminished in economic hard times, the administration, like any good salesperson, has decided to change its tack. While the country is busy paying the bills from the war and running up higher deficits, the administration has decided to say these cuts are about economic growth and jobs. After all, who can be against that? That's this week, of course. If that approach doesn't work, however, expect a new, even more upbeat message next week - perhaps "the president's plan for candy, puppies, and sunny days."

The Bush administration is good at selling things. It's good at coming up with catch phrases. It's good at, dare we say it, spinning. You can call the president many things, plain- spoken, a regular guy, but when it comes to selling things, his team spins as well as a group of personal trainers in a room full of stationary bikes.

Spinning is nothing new, of course. Remove the ability to spin from people here, and political conversation would largely cease to exist. But Mr. Bush's team has taken it to new heights, often giving his proposals names that say the exact opposite of what they do. And a close look behind the rhetoric makes one wonder where exactly the president stands on a number of issues.

Take, for example, the president's Clear Skies plan. How does it clear the nation's skies? Well, by pushing back the timetable in the Clean Air Act that determines when air must be less polluted. It also allows older power plants that expand and update themselves to be exempt from rules requiring they install state-of-the-art pollution controls.

Or look at one of the cornerstone's of President Bush's election victory in 2000, the Leave No Child Behind Act. Many school administrators have criticized the way the law keeps score of which schools are succeeding and which aren't.

Under the law, schools must improve on annual standardized tests or they are deemed to be failing. Constant improvement is obviously a difficult challenge not only for lower quality schools in poor neighborhoods, but also for very good schools in great neighborhoods.

But even if you believe in "Leave No Child Behind" and think it's a wonderful idea, the fact is the Bush administration has not given the law the kind of money that the regulation requires. In its 2003 budget, the administration proposed $11.35 billion in Title I funds - money geared to help disadvantaged students - that was $4.5 billion less than the law called for. No one is arguing that the economy is hurting or times are tough, but why would the president cut back on funds for a program that he himself trumpeted, pushed through, and called "the most meaningful education reform probably ever"?

Mr. Bush arrived in this city amid a cloud of uncertainty. He rode a paper-thin electoral majority into the White House on another nice piece of sloganeering, "compassionate conservatism," but with many voters not completely clear on what he actually planned to do with his time in office beyond cutting taxes.

There's no doubt that the president has been faced with enormous difficulties in his time in office. The 2001 terrorist attacks fundamentally altered his presidency, as they would have anyone's time in office.

Still, as the Bush caravan makes its way around the country this week, spending the president's political capital to sell a tax cut or a growth package or whatever the plan is two weeks from now, the president is faced with a legitimate question. Besides tax cuts, what exactly is he interested in?

With the 2004 election approaching, Bush needs to find an answer in the next year or so. If he doesn't, all the spin in the world may not be able to help him.

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