The Tax Issue

THE economic future of the United States is the centerpiece of this year's presidential campaign. No one doubts it's the subject most on voters' minds. But from the rhetorical volleys hurtling between the Bush and Clinton camps, the subject seems to be reduced to, "Who's the bigger taxer?"

Republican analysts pored over Bill Clinton's economic plan, released just before his July convention, and found what they considered ample evidence to charge him with taxing in the first degree. Or, to use the phrase repeated by every GOP campaigner from President Bush on down: "They're proposing the largest tax increase in the history of the United States!"

Without question, the Clinton program of huge infrastructure investments and national health care would be expensive. Revenues would have to be hiked, and a higher income-tax rate for the wealthiest few might not be adequate, though it's the tax increase that Democrats are eager to talk about. But would the taxes proposed or implied by Mr. Clinton's program really be the biggest ever?

Democratic counter-punchers bring up the Reagan tax increase of 1982, which projected revenues of $152.3 billion over four years, though it only brought in a little over $90 billion. This compares to $150 billion over five years for the Clinton plan, according to Republican figures. Democrats point out that a hefty portion of that would be offset by spending cuts and tax reductions. And they remind you that the Bush-signed tax hike of 1990 was itself a whopper, projected to raise some $137 billion.

All this can begin to seem like so much campaign hot air. The critical issue is what makes sense for the economy. Clinton has put forward a plan that many economists applaud, with its substantial public investments to get the economy moving. Republicans lambaste that approach as a "big government" strategy that will squelch private-sector growth.

Both parties give lip service to reducing the federal deficit, which, unchecked, will increasingly drag down investment and economic vitality.

Deficit reduction is a long-term economic necessity that seems at odds with both parties' short-term remedies - whether Democratic public investment, which involves increased government spending, or Republican tax cuts.

To be honest with voters, the candidates on both sides are going to have to move away from the rhetorical skirmishes over taxes and move on to reasoned explanations of how they propose to reconcile the country's short-term and long-term economic needs.

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