As the debate over a possible war with Iraq intensifies and planning for battle accelerates, critics of the Bush administration's 2001 tax cut may be feeling a nasty case of déjà vu. The connection's not obvious, but there are striking parallels between how the White House marketed its tax-cut plan last year and how it's marketing war today.
Both campaigns have featured rationales that seem to shift with the political wind. Both have sought to fan public fears in order to galvanize public support. They have been built around simplistic panaceas, a liberal dose of misinformation and raw power politics.
It's a unique brand of hardball the Bush administration has perfected, and one that has twice overpowered Democrats reluctant to criticize the White House on popular subjects like war and taxes.
One difference: The war against Iraq still remains uncertain, but economists say the effects of the trillion-dollar tax cuts are plain to see. Which raises the question: Could Bush's tax cuts, the cornerstone of his domestic agenda, serve as a preview of Bush's foreign policy imperative to invade Iraq? Last year Bush and his team assured Americans that the $1.6 trillion tax cut would provide a much-needed boost to the economy. Instead, the economy continues to perform poorly -- so poorly that Bush doesn't even want to talkabout it publicly, let alone address specific problems. What if administration hawks, who insist regime-changing in Iraq will be among the easiest military incursions of the last half-century, turn out to be just as off-key?
As with his pitch during the tax-cut campaign, Bush's argument today revolves around a simple idea: Trust us. For those who watched the tax-cut debate, their arguments are eerily familiar:
During the debate over tax cuts, the White House justification often changed by the day, from "sharing the surplus, stimulating the economy or just reducing the price of success," noted David Broder in the Washington Post.
Critics see the same game being played with Iraq. "I don't even know what the argument for war is anymore," says Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and coauthor of "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940." "First, it's because Saddam tortures his people, then it's weapons of mass destruction. Then nuclear arms, and then a connection with al-Qaida. It's surreal and bizarre. It's a textbook case people will be studying for years to come on how not to conduct foreign policy."
Highlights during the tax debate included the White House insistence that there was enough money to cover the tax cuts without endangering other programs, and that the "typical" family would pocket $1,600, when in fact families making between $30,000 and $40,000 would earn just $616. The administration denied the tax cuts would go mainly to the very, very wealthy, even though most analysts said that's exactly what would happen. And it tried to sell the cut as a short-term stimulus package to ward off a recession, even though most of the cuts were backloaded and would not go into effect for years. (That was done in order to keep the size of the tax cut down initially and minimize the debate.)
That same proclivity has been on full display in recent weeks as the White House gears up for war. Last month, Bush told reporters that an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) study had concluded Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was "six months" away from obtaining nuclear capabilities. "I don't know what more evidence we need," concluded Bush. Yet the IAEA never issued any such report with those findings about Iraq.
Weeks earlier, the administration shared with the New York Times -- and then played up on Sunday talk shows -- a story about how Iraq had been caught trying to obtain specially designed aluminum tubes to help produce weapons-grade uranium. In a mocking editorial titled, "You Call That Evidence?" the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists suggested that if Iraq was buying the tubes, it proves Saddam is essentially starting his nuclear bomb-building campaign from scratch and is even furtherbehind than previously believed.
"Bush came in on the belief that if you cut taxes, all your economic problems will be solved and the economy will grow and grow," says Al From, founder and CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council. He thinks the notion was simplistic, and worsened by the fact there was no White House backup plan: "They don't have an economic policy," he says, "they only have a tax-cut policy."
Similarly, in a bedrock belief many experts find implausible and naive, the White House insists that once Saddam is removed from power, a democratic government will be installed in Iraq and the Middle Eastern puzzle of violence will practically solve itself.
"Bush came into office talking down the economy," notes From, recalling remarks Bush and his advisors made in December 2000 and then in early 2001, talking up the possibility of a recession in order to build support for their tax cut. The anxious trash talk, says From, simply added to the economy's woes. By contrast, the White House recently insisted "America is on the road to [economic] recovery," and urged everyone to "share the president's confidence and optimism."
Fear also has been at the heart of the White House's Iraq marketing, including recent talk from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice warning that Saddam might unleash a "mushroom cloud," and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggesting Saddam might soon attack America and kill "tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children."
Of course the looming war with Iraq has become drenched in election-year politics, with Democrats complaining the White House is overtly using the fall campaigns as a backdrop to call for a congressional resolution of action against Iraq, even though the U.S. has not yet deployed any troops or received backing from the United Nations. During the Gulf War, the former President Bush waited until after the fall election, after the troops were in place, and after the U.N. signed on -- only then did he go to Congress for support.
Last January, current Bush political guru Karl Rove telegraphed the strategy in a speech when he announced that Republicans would be able to use the issue of national security during the fall campaign to win votes. More recently, Bush chief of staff Andrew Card conceded to the New York Times that the White House was approaching the war debate from a "marketing point of view."
Similarly, Bush's overly generous tax cut was drawn directly from the well of politics. It was unveiled during the Republican primaries as a way to insulate Bush from supply-side rival Steve Forbes and to wash away the memory of Bush Sr.'s broken pledge about not raising taxes. "Nobody believed Bush's tax policy had anything to do with economics," says Robert Shapiro, managing director of Sonecon, an investment banking firm, and former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration.
The tax cuts effectively restored budget deficits, dampened business investment and "consigned us back to a period of stagnating incomes and moderate economic growth," says Shapiro. "Bush made a bad [economic] policy decision on a very large scale, and he's being careless with the future of the American people."
Is he also being careless with regard to Iraq?