Clintonizing Kerry

Despite guns blazing in Iraq this week, John Kerry decided to focus on butter.

In his second major campaign speech on the economy, the presumed Democratic nominee made promises about federal spending that indicate a President Kerry is likely to be more a Clinton than a Johnson; and on tax cuts, he'd be more a JFK than an FDR.

Mr. Kerry's speech was decidedly to the right for a Democrat, indicating he's rounded on his heels after the left-nudging primaries and run to the economic mainstream in time for the November election.

In his plan, he does President Bush one better by promising to cut the budget deficit by half within four years, a promise that has a read-my-lips certainty. But he conceded the Bush middle-class tax cuts are worth keeping, which would further stimulate the economy.

And Kerry defined the middle-class as those who earn up to $200,000. Anyone making more than that would not receive the cuts that Bush and Congress gave them and which might be extended. The anticipated revenue of Kerry's plan to tax the rich - perhaps close to $90 billion - would be used for health and education.

He thus joins a few other tax- cutting liberal presidents, such as John Kennedy, in stealing some GOP thunder. But it is in trying to achieve an austere budget that Kerry makes a novel contribution.

First, to halve the deficit, he had to renege on spending promises made during the primaries, such as immediate funding for universal preschool. Then, he has vowed to limit growth in spending to the rate of inflation for about 20 percent of the budget that's considered discretionary. If the economy keeps expanding, however, he'll have a hard time resisting political pressure for higher spending.

Like Clinton, Kerry plans to trim the bureaucracy through such steps as freezing federal travel and cutting outside contractors. That will require a vigilance few presidents have shown.

Kerry also endorses a lapsed congressional rule that any tax cuts be offset by new revenues or decreased spending. But he would let the middle-class tax cuts slip through that filter, undercutting the fiscal discipline that many in Congress are now trying to reinstate.

His speech provides enough details to dissipate a GOP charge that he's a tax-and-spend liberal. But the details don't clearly guarantee a reduced deficit. As the campaign continues, perhaps Kerry can fill in the blanks.

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