Polly: He's a socialist but he doesn't like people.
Brian: Nor do I, much.
Polly: You're a Conservative. You don't have to.
-- Alan Bennett, "Getting On"
George W. Bush is a conservative who seems -- there is no accounting for taste -- to like people. Which is one reason he has confounded post-Florida predictions by producing a honeymoon. Three weeks into his 208-week term, he is deriving momentum, in part, from the contrast between his temperament and the temperaments of his predecessor and the most sulfurous Democrats.
Like a snail leaving a trail of slime on a sidewalk, Bill Clinton in his exquisitely in-character departure -- his pockets bulging, figuratively (or perhaps not) speaking, with spoons -- underscored the question that was central to the election: Did the party that never recoiled from Clinton's comportment deserve a rebuke or another four years?
Bush's supposedly amazing "charm offensive" is nothing more remarkable than a restoration of elemental civility. It has been helped by dissonant vituperation from the departing chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Joe Andrew, who dismisses Bush as a "lousy" president and a "sock puppet" manipulated by the vice president, and from the new chairman, Terry McAuliffe, who says Republicans favor "spilling oil in Alaska" and "putting derricks in Yellowstone Park."
Adolescence, unattractive enough in adolescents, is more so in biological adults, but that of Andrew and McAuliffe is a gift to Bush. And it may be a gift that keeps on giving.
The centerpiece of Bush's program is a $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years, a sum less than 1.5 percent of GDP over that period. Relative to the size of the economy, it is half the size of President Kennedy's and half the size of President Reagan's. It would cut just less than 5 percent of anticipated revenues.
And that figure is arrived at by static -- hence faulty -- analysis that does not anticipate increased economic growth resulting from the stimulative effect of the cut. Stephen Moore of the Club for Growth notes that static analysis projected that the 1997 cut in the capital gains rate from 28 to 20 percent would reduce tax collections by $50 billion over five years. But already capital gains tax receipts have increased by more than $100 billion. So it is reasonable to project that the revenue decrease from Bush's cut would be less than $1.6 trillion -- probably, Moore says, no more than 4 percent of revenues over the 10 years.
Small wonder Democrats are moving Bush's way. During the campaign, Al Gore endorsed first a $250 billion cut, then one of $500 billion. Now some Democrats endorse devoting one-third of the surplus -- minus the Social Security surplus -- to retiring the national debt, one-third to new spending and one-third to tax cuts. They are endorsing a $1 trillion cut -- plus a staggering $1 trillion of new spending. Plus the substantial additional debt reduction resulting from preserving the Social Security surplus. Clearly we are well within the realm Bush wants to operate in, the realm not of clashing principles but of splittable differences.
It has been widely reported that by 2000 half of American households owned stocks. It has been less remarked -- but is not surprising, given the 50 percent voter turnout -- that 70 percent of those who voted own stocks. They are not feeling as flush today as they felt a year ago, when Bush's tax-cut proposal failed to strike the sort of sparks he wanted.
Julie Hirschfeld of Congressional Quarterly notes that until Jan. 20, only 35 percent of all members of the House had served when somebody other than Clinton was president. The 65 percent, elected in or since 1992, have never served during a recession, and many of these members have known surpluses for more years than they knew deficits.
The surplus is beginning to seem normal -- something to be partly disbursed, not hoarded like the White House silver (or what remains of it). And now there is a normal president, who understands three things: Last year's federal, state and local surpluses exceeded $300 billion -- a 3 percent of GDP drag on the economy. Elementary political morality rejects protracted overtaxation. And Republican appropriators led last autumn's $50 billion spending spree, which foreshadowed the real alternative to Bush's tax cut.
Washington Post Writers Group