Public View of Democrats Shines In Budget Battle

Republican candidates run left and right away from Bush as polls register voter shift

THE popular politics of the budget deal is spinning decisively in favor of the Democrats. The activity in Washington in recent weeks has been etched deeply into voter perceptions of the two major parties. Suddenly, both the Democratic Party's image and prospects for individual Democratic candidates have improved.

The Republican Party has lost its long advantage as the party best trusted to handle the economy and taxes, while it has deepened its traditional image as the party most likely to defend the wealthy.

When it adjourned early Sunday, Congress had at last approved a hard-fought $490 billion deficit-trimming package of tax increases and cuts in federal spending. The Senate passed it on a 54-to-45 vote about 11 hours after the House gave its approval, 228 to 200, shortly after dawn Saturday.

The five-year agreement will hike taxes on the rich, raise gasoline and excise taxes for all Americans, and trim Medicare by about $43 billion.

President Bush, in Honolulu on a combination political-diplomatic outing, said he would sign the bill.

But shifts in public perceptions have Republican candidates running both to the left and to the right to distance themselves from the president's budget position - a tactic openly advocated for the last days of the campaign by Edward Rollins, co-chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The signals came in clearest last week in a poll by pollsters Peter Hart, a Democrat, and Republican counterpart Robert Teeter.

Mr. Hart notes a ``major turnaround on issues where the Republicans have always been strong.''

On the economy, Democrats were favored by 40 percent, the GOP by 30 percent. On taxes, the Democrats by 36 percent, the GOP by 29 percent. But on representing the wealthy, Republicans were tapped by 64 percent to the Democrats' 13 percent.

``Clearly, to the extent that the data show movement, they show movement in favor of the Democrats,'' says Eddie Mahe, a political consultant working to elect Republicans to Congress.

The damage is deep, according to Mr. Mahe. When he started working in politics 25 years ago, he says, the GOP was still tarred as the party of Hoover, defending the interests of the rich. The Reagan presidency wore that reputation down over eight years with its populist appeal to middle- and working-class values. Now the ``party of the rich'' is back with a vengeance.

``In the year 2000, we will still be paying the price for the last six weeks,'' he says.

The great success of the Democrats has been to carry the terms of the budget debate. While Republicans argued for a package that promotes economic growth - and argued largely with each other - the Democrats argued for fairness in who pays how much.

Hart pinpoints the crucial turning point in dynamics of this election season as Oct. 9, when President Bush told Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon that he would not allow a rate increase for the wealthy.

Last week, the last major issue holding up the deal was a standoff over how to tax people with taxable incomes of more than a million dollars a year.

The Democrats wanted a 7.5 percent surtax. The Republicans wanted to phase out tax deductions as incomes rose. The Republicans won their point in the package. But they were also in the position of threatening to shut down the federal government over the still-historically-low taxes of the superrich.

A senior Democratic leader professes bafflement over the political sense of the White House in arguing against a surtax on million-dollar incomes.

Much of the nation's electorate is clearly caught in a wave of anti-Washington, anti-politician fervor directed at incumbents of both parties. But Hart says he finds that the voters seeking change are also more often Democrats.

Not one poll that he or Mr. Teeter has seen in the past two weeks held negative news for a Democratic candidate, Hart said at a Monitor breakfast on Friday.

None of this may do the Democrats much good - or the GOP much harm - on election day. In spite of trends in voter sentiment, relatively few incumbents are vulnerable this year, according to Hart.

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