The Gutless Moderates of the Democratic Party
Published on Friday, May 4, 2001 in the Washington Post
Gutless Moderates of the Democratic Party
by E. J. Dionne Jr.
 
Do Republicans have a greater desire to win and more determination than Democrats? Are Democrats too torn to put up a successful fight on fundamental principles?

You get that sense watching some so-called moderate Democrats rushing to embrace a Republican tax-cut agreement that will hand a big victory to President Bush and endanger many of the programs Democrats purport to be for.

Oh, yes, the Democrats forced Bush to cut back the size of his tax cut, from $1.6 trillion to $1.25 trillion. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle struggled gamely to argue that Bush "was dragged kicking and screaming" into this budget compromise. Daschle credited moderates in both parties for forcing the president in that direction.

But Daschle also admitted the reduction in the tax cut "wasn't as much as I would have liked." That's putting it mildly. Daschle called a meeting of his Senate brethren yesterday, presumably to put some steel (or at least some aluminum) in their spines on the budget.

In fact, this budget plan is incoherent. Its architects failed to reconcile their desire for a big tax cut with the clearly expressed desire of Congress, especially the Senate, to spend more on programs in education, health care and agriculture. It doesn't take adequate account of the large amounts of cash Bush will want for the Pentagon and will need to finance his Social Security privatization plan.

To get a sense of which party is willing to fight hardest, compare what Republicans did to Bill Clinton during his first year in office with what Democrats are doing to Bush now. The Republicans voted as a bloc against Clinton's first budget in 1993. It fell to Democrats to squeeze out every last vote from their own ranks, and the Clinton economic plan, with its tax increases, passed by a single vote in each House.

Democrats have shown no such solidarity against Bush. In the Senate, four Democrats -- John Breaux of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Robert Torricelli of New Jersey and Zell Miller of Georgia -- have signaled they'll go along with this tax deal. This will give Bush the appearance of bipartisanship despite his resolute refusal to make any serious concessions to the Democratic leadership.

Moderate Democrats, notably Breaux, argued regularly during the Clinton years that a president's obligation is to create coalitions "from the center out." They meant that he should start with moderate ideas and seek votes from both sides of the political spectrum and the party divide.

But in this budget negotiation, Bush disdained the very "center out" strategy these moderates claim to believe in. He proposed proudly and without apology a stoutly conservative plan that cuts taxes too much and distributes far too much of the reduction to the very wealthy.

Far from paying a price for his refusal to reach out, Bush managed to move the entire tax debate in his direction. The moderates briefly showed signs of a fight when they forced down the size of the tax cut on the Senate floor. But the moderates quickly went along with a "compromise" that will produce a much bigger tax cut than any Democrat said was reasonable as recently as a few months ago.

This episode suggests that when anyone in Washington uses big abstractions -- "center out," "bipartisanship," etc. -- you should ignore the words and ask where they are trying to push policy. If moderation was good for Clinton but unnecessary for Bush, what does that tell you about those using this language? It says their real agenda was to foil progressive initiatives and shove policy in a conservative direction. So far, they've succeeded. A genuinely moderate approach would have produced a smaller, more fairly distributed tax cut. By caving early, the moderates foiled moderation.

Since the details of the tax cut are still to be worked out, there's time to make it fairer. But you now have to wonder about these moderates. If they go along with the repeal of the inheritance tax and big cuts in the top income tax brackets for the wealthy, you'll know the definition of a moderate: a conservative who lacks Tom DeLay's guts or candor.

This Bush tax cut is structured shrewdly to affect politics for years to come and lets conservatives set the political agenda.

By essentially wiping out the surplus, Bush and his allies put advocates of moderately more energetic government on the defensive. In the future, they will have to argue for rescinding or repealing tax cuts already passed. I understand why Bush wants this to happen. Why this strategy should appeal to anyone who claims to be moderate is beyond me.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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