The buzz about President George W. Bush’s “Address to Congress” is that he gave a carefully triangulated, bipartisan speech about which most Americans can feel perfectly comfortable. Bush promised to cut taxes, reduce the deficit by $2 trillion, put $1 trillion away for a rainy day, and still continue to fund important programs.
Believe that and we’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Of the economic goals he set out Tuesday night, the only one he really wants to achieve is the $1.6 billion tax cut. Not that he offered many details as to how he’ll do it.
Bush was careful to keep his talk about the tax cut in percentages — new rates of 10 percent for those who “earn low wages” (as opposed to the current 15 percent tax rate) and 33 percent for the wealthy (down from 39.6 percent). In other words, nothing we haven’t already heard. Bush used the old Clinton-Reagan trick of referring to a real American family in the gallery to make his case. In Bush’s case he found Steven and Josefina Ramos of Pennsylvania, a hard-working Latino couple from a key swing state. Even better for Bush, Mrs. Ramos is a teacher in a charter school — not quite a voucher-funded parochial school, but almost as good.
A tax cut is crucial during good times, Bush claimed, to give the American people a “refund.” But they’re just as important when times turn bad. Said Bush: “To create economic growth and opportunity, we must put money back into the hands of the people who buy goods and create jobs.... We must act quickly. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve has testified before Congress that tax cuts often come too late to stimulate economic recovery.” What Bush failed to address are the legitimate concerns that his tax cut will harm the economy. If it’s not made retroactive to the beginning of the year, for example, there’s no way it can prime the spending pump. But if it goes through — the cuts get progressively deeper over the course of five years — and the economic downturn we seem to be in gets worse, Bush will be forced to slash the federal budget. Even moderates will join the old “blood in the streets gang” — here in the Commonwealth that function is served by the Tax Equity Alliance — who decry every budget cut.
For all the empty rhetoric, slashing federal programs may be Bush’s ultimate goal. Bush and the core Republicans who support him don’t want to see Congress spending money, and a tax cut — passed by Congress — gives Bush the cover to cut programs without culpability. In a less-sweet-sounding, Republican version of Bill Clinton’s “the era of big government is over,” Bush stated that “government has a role — an important role,” but his push for a massive tax cut — coupled with the charitable-choice initiative — suggests otherwise.
Bush may have given a better, more comfortable address than he has in the past. In terms of being honest with the American public, however, he needs to head to the back of Mrs. Ramos’s classroom.
Read Dan Kennedy's piece on Bush's speech: