President Clinton has come down from the mountaintop at Camp David and waded right back into domestic politics.
First on his agenda: fighting back Republican tax-cut legislation. For two weeks, Congress has been churning out tax relief while the president, sequestered in the rain-soaked woods with Mideast leaders, was unable to respond. Now, he's back in front of the cameras, blasting the GOP for cuts that are "too big, too reckless, too irresponsible," and promising vetoes.
But while this strategy worked last year, this time, the White House - and, by extension, the Democrats - may be vulnerable. Recent polls show tax cuts slowly gaining strength as an election issue. As estimates of the federal budget surplus balloon, Americans are starting to wonder if it's possible to have it all: spending and tax cuts.
"My sense is that right now Americans think they can have both," says Karlyn Bowman, a public-opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute. Whether the public would support a veto on, say, marriage-penalty tax relief "is an open question," says Ms. Bowman.
Public support will depend on which party wins the message war. This year, the GOP is rolling out its tax cuts one at a time, making a separate case for each measure. Some of these items - eliminating the marriage penalty, the estate tax, and allowing increased tax-free contributions to retirement funds - are resonating with the public, say pollsters.
But the president is trying to get Americans to do the math. If you add everything up, he says, the GOP proposals are a "U-turn" back to budget deficits.
"The question is, how is the message framed, and how do voters hear it?" says John Kessel, a political scientist at Ohio State University in Columbus.
When asked to choose, most voters would rather save Social Security and Medicare than help themselves to a tax cut. The same goes for paying down the debt. This is exactly what the president had in mind when he challenged Republicans this week to send him all their bills at the same time so Americans could see the total impact.
Added up, Republican tax cuts would cost $1.8 trillion, Mr. Clinton pointed out, completely wiping out future surpluses, and leaving nothing for strengthening healthcare and retirement programs, nothing for a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, nothing for greater investment in education or the environment.
Further, he said, it would be impossible to pay down the debt by 2012. Clinton likened the GOP response to surplus projections to someone who gets an Ed McMahon sweepstakes envelope and promptly sets out on a buying binge.
But the White House itself is using creative math. Included in its itemized list of GOP tax cuts are measures Congress passed last year, and which the president has already vetoed - measures such as a $500 billion across-the-board tax cut, which are not live issues on the Hill this year. By lumping last year's measures in with current ones, the administration is able to make the GOP final tally look bigger than it is.
"The president's playing politics," says Chris Ingram, senior vice president at Luntz Research, a GOP polling firm.
Republicans, meanwhile, sense success with their one-at-a-time strategy. Two of their measures - eliminating the marriage penalty and the estate tax - are particularly well-chosen because they come across more as fairness issues than irresponsible tax cuts. Clinton himself supports removing the tax burden on married couples - though not the GOP plan.
The key for Republicans is to keep the various cuts separate. When they're lumped together, the president wins the message war, says independent pollster John Zogby. But "when the president vetoes the marriage-penalty legislation, that is something that can be used against Al Gore."
In the end, the White House will probably use legislation such as marriage-penalty relief for bargaining in the fall. Clinton has already proposed one deal: He'll say yes to marriage tax relief if Republicans give him a Medicare prescription-drug benefit. The GOP has rejected this proposal, and it's unlikely to go through.
But Clinton may use it to bargain for something other than prescription drugs, such as a patients' bill of rights. Asked if the president might cash in this chip in the fall, a senior White House aide answered, "Maybe."
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