The return of big ideas to politics

With surpluses projected for years, would-be presidents differentiate

With primary voting now just around the corner, the still-developing 2000 presidential campaign might be fairly themed "The Race of the Big Plans."

That's because the return of surpluses to Washington's treasury has given this cycle's candidates more room to propose policy initiatives than US politics has seen for years.

Republican Gov. George W. Bush's proffered tax cut and Democrat Bill Bradley's health-care plan both might cost more than $1 trillion over 10 years, an astronomical price by recent US legislative standards. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Vice President Al Gore portray themselves as more fiscally prudent than their nomination rivals - but both still offer substantial tax reduction and/or health and education spending proposals.

What might be happening is an unfreezing of US political history. For almost 20 years, the need to balance the budget has been an overwhelming federal concern, causing Democrats and Republicans alike to put off work on issues dearer to their hearts.

Now an era of black ink may let the two great parties that govern America resume drawing sharper distinctions between themselves. It's already allowing party nominees more leeway to define their own differences.

Drawing differences

If nothing else, surplus politics has allowed Mr. Gore to attempt to define himself as campaign 2000's centrist. On the stump he now routinely criticizes Governor Bush and Mr. Bradley for pre-spending surpluses.

"[I am] not going to succumb to the temptation to spend these surpluses on campaign pledges," Gore said Sunday.

In at least one respect, Gore is exaggerating his rivals' spending proclivities. All four front-runners - Gore, Bush, Bradley, and Senator McCain - have forsworn use of any black ink generated by the Social Security trust funds.

According to the most recent Congressional Budget Office analysis, the federal government will take in about $3 trillion more than it needs to fund current programs over the next 10 years. But two-thirds of that comes from Social Security.

"If a candidate believes that the Social Security surplus should be off limits, then the size of the available surplus shrinks to $1 trillion, with 70 percent of that coming in the last five years of the projection [2005-09]," judges a just-issued analysis by the the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group.

$1 trillion is still a lot of money, even by Washington standards. And Bradley is hoping that the American people's top priority for that cash is national health care.

Bradley's sweeping plan would eliminate Medicaid, the existing government health program for the poor and replace it with a sliding scale of tax subsidies to help those with low incomes purchase private health insurance. Everyone, regardless of income, would be able to deduct the cost of health premiums from their taxes if they buy individual policies. Finally, it would add a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare and open the government's own health plan, the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, to all citizens.

In other words, it would pretty much rip up the US health-care system and replace it with something else. And it wouldn't be cheap. The Bradley campaign's own estimate is that it would cost $55 billion to $65 billion a year. An outside estimate from Emory University - which Bradley disputes - puts the price tag at $80 billion for the first year alone and $1-plus trillion for the decade.

Whatever its cost, it is clearly a proposal of an activist sort that the Democratic Party has not seen for years. Gore's health plan, by contrast, is all Clinton incrementalism, building on existing programs to increase health coverage.

Thus surplus politics has resulted in a surprisingly substantive debate between the Democratic rivals about the direction the nation's traditionally more liberal party should take in the post-Clinton era.

The effect on the Republican race has been more muted, but still substantial. The subject: tax cuts, which have arguably become as central an aspect to Bush's campaign as they were to Ronald Reagan's in 1980.

Bush laid out his tax plans in detail in early December, eight months earlier than Bob Dole managed when outlining his own tax-reduction plans in the last presidential cycle. And the plan, which would reduce the number of tax brackets while lowering marginal rates, is not inexpensive: The Bush campaign says it would cost $483 billion over five years. Over 10 years, the cuts would use up virtually all the $1 billion non-Social Security surplus. Some estimates put the decade-long price tag as high as $1.7 billion.

As Mr. Reagan did, Bush cites the need to starve government of revenue as a main reason to cut taxes. "If you want to get rid of pork in Washington, stop feeding the hog," he said at a debate in Des Moines on Dec. 13.

Some of Bush's GOP rivals, particularly Steve Forbes, have criticized his tax plan as too small. On the other hand, McCain, Bush's main opponent for the Republican nomination, has criticized the cut as "excessive."

McCain himself has proffered a tax cut that he says would cost $530 billion over 10 years, with some $230 billion of that paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes, among other items of revenue enhancement.

Will the surpluses appear?

Whether the surplus that has stimulated all this tax-cut and health-program talk actually appears is another matter.

Much of the non-Social Security surplus does not show up in budget projections until some five years after these programs would presumably have been enacted, points out an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And budget projections are notoriously fickle, subject to whims of the economy.

"The claim that a variety of policies that would reduce revenues or increase expenditures after 2000 can readily be financed by large non-Social Security surpluses is based on mistaken assumptions," concludes the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis. "Legislation ... should not be predicated on convenient but unfounded assumptions that substantial non-Social Security surpluses will be available."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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