Following the Money
With David S. Broder
Washington Post Columnist/Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 11, 2001; Noon EST
President Bush has presented his first budget plan as the nation's chief executive, trimming a bit off the top of a variety of programs, holding spending increases to 4 percent. Meanwhile, the Senate scaled back his tax cut plan to $1.2 trillion, just a couple of days after approving the McCain-Feingold campaign finance plan. Is this budget fight destined to get nasty? And will the first major change to campaign finance laws survive the House?
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist David S. Broder has written extensively about primaries, elections, special interests and the business of politics. His books include "Democracy Derailed: The Initiative Movement & the Power of Money," "Behind the Front Page: A Candid Look at How the News Is Made" and "The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point." He was online to talk about what's happening in Washington from Capitol Hill to the Cabinet on Thursday, March 22.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control
over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
New York, N.Y.: Mr. Broder --
History will very likely regard the election of 2000 as a stain on American democracy, and historians will probably debate the legitimacy of the Bush II presidency to no sure resolution. Meanwhile in the present, business seems to be going on in Washington as usual, as though nothing -unusual- happened in November and December. If the unfinished business of the election is actually merely suppressed, how, do you think, might it be expressed in the next two to four years? Is suppressed anxiety about Bush's legitimacy good for Bush, or will it come back to harm him?
David S. Broder: That is a very good question, and the honest answer is, I don't know. It is certainly possible that the "suppressed anxiety" about Bush's election will reappear, possibly when he makes his first appointment to the Supreme Court, possibly when he goes back on the ballot in 2004. For now, my impression is that both in Washington and in the parts of the country where I have been traveling the last few weeks, the debate is much more about Bush's policies and actions than about the legitimacy of his election.
Reston, Va.: Do you expect to see an increase in spending to some of the agencies in the budget now that some Republican senators have seen a cut in income for agencies in their own states? I have read that many Republican senators are promising agencies in their state that the cuts are too deep and will have to be adjusted? This seems typical, that old "cut the budget or remove the military base, but not in my state."
Your opinion please.
David S. Broder: My guess is that a number of the domestic programs which Bush is proposing to freeze, cut or eliminate will be rescued by their sponsors in Congress. The Senate budget resolution calls for substantially more spending in several areas than the president recommended, and that sends a signal of what is likely to come.
Tucson, Ariz.: A hidden tax increase is one of the aspects of President Bush's budget that has received scant press coverage. The "fee" increase of $1 to be added to all airline tickets is a hidden tax increase. This type of "fee" increase was a hallmark of Bush's budgeting in Texas. The interesting part of this "fee" increase is its tie to INS enforcement funding increases, as if most of the illegals are coming in to this country on 747s. Living near the Mexican border in Arizona I can tell you most of the illegals are coming through the border on foot.
David S. Broder: You are certainly correct that a fee increase on airline tickets is no different from increasing the tax on those tickets by the same amount. And that rationale for linking it to immigration enforcement strikes me, as it does you, as a real reach.
Houston, Tex.: It seems to me that Bush has engaged in deliberate negotiating tactics. With the tax cut, he initially proposed $1.6 trillion as a benchmark, fully aware that he would not attain that figure. The $1.6 number was merely an opening salvo, a deliberately high benchmark that he knew would come down. The point is that by issuing a high benchmark, he knew that some tax relief would come out of the negotiations.
David S. Broder: I am not a mind-reader, so I cannot judge whether the $1.6 billion figure was simply a bargaining chip or a serious estimate of what the tax cut should be. I was told by two high administration officials that $1.6 billion was a number they could defend on what they call conservative budget and economic assumptions. The Senate obviously disagrees. My own hunch is that the size and shape of the eventual tax cut will be strongly influenced by what happens in the economy between now and late summer, when the measure will take its final form. And I expect that whatever the final figure, President Bush will proclaim it a victory and say that, without his ardent advocacy, the taxpayers would have gotten much less of a break.
Arlington, Va.: So many people are pointing fingers at Gov. Davis for the power crisis in California. But I've heard that the reason the energy infrastructure in the state is falling apart is because Gov. Pete Wilson -- a Republican -- let it slide. Is this the case?
David S. Broder: The California energy problems certainly do go back to a time before Gov. Davis was elected. The deregulation bill was passed almost unanimously by the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Pete Wilson. At the same time, litigation by environmental groups and opposition by local communities essentially stopped the construction of new power plants. The result is the energy crisis now facing California and spilling over to other western states. Because Gov. Davis is now in office, the longer the crisis continues, the more of a problem it will be for him. And it is unlikely to be resolved before he faces reelection next year.
Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think Al Gore is a viable candidate for 2004? Why has he disappeared from public view? And why does he have such a poor relationship with the press? (This is exemplified by Howard Fineman's remarkably catty profile of him in the latest Newsweek).
David S. Broder: My understanding is that Mr. Gore has chosen deliberately to stay out of the public debate for several months, on the sensible grounds that any policy criticism he offered at this time might be ascribed to sour grapes at his disputed defeat. But I believe from what his friends and associates say that he hopes to have a voice and a role in national politics in the future. My sense is that it will not be easy for him to reclaim a forum, since he holds no office, and the volume of criticism of his campaign from other Democrats, including some past supporters, is really heavy right now.
Portland, Ore.: I liked your column today about the energy problems we're facing in the West. I also believe that Gov. Kitzhaber would be the strongest Democrat to run against Sen. Smith. If the "rolling blackouts" do continue this summer and expand to other states than California, can we expect the federal government to do anything? Personally with California being so large a factor in the economy, I'm surprised there hasn't been more action by the Bush administration or Congress. (Granted California has become pretty much a Democrat-haven.)
washingtonpost.com: Column: Politics in the Dark (Post, April 11, 2001)
David S. Broder: I'm glad that column made sense to you. I do not think the government in Washington can ignore what is happening in California and the West with the power crisis. The whole national economy is affected by what happens in your part of the country, and the economic and political consequences are just too great to be ignored.
Arlington, Va.: After an election which was essentially a tie, we all expected Bush to reach out to at least some of those who were against him in order to solidify his prospects for a second term. Instead he is giving his enemies "red meat" in being anti-environment and relentlessly pro-business. The latter course led to the horror of announcing cutbacks in meat inspection which had to be retracted. If this is a political game plan, what does Karl Rove know that we don't?
David S. Broder: The White House seems to believe that the emphasis on education reform and tax cuts will cause suburban voters to ignore the actions on the environment, consumer issues and regulatory issues which the administration is taking. That strikes me as a substantial political risk, and the suburban Republican legislators and representatives I've interviewed voice strong concerns.
Kerrville, Tex.: It seems like China needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs China. China needs U.S. assistance to get the Olympics and into the WTO. In turn, the strength of the U.S. economy doesn't depend on the "Made in China" trinkets floating around. Why has the U.S. historically allowed China to push it around?
The most recent incident is the first time that I can remember that the U.S. hasn't given in immediately to China's demands. However, I'm still not sure what the difference is between "very sorry," "regret," and an actual apology is.
Why is it that an insignificant island in the Caribbean (Cuba) constantly invokes the wrath of our government while China, an actual menace, gets away with murder?
David S. Broder: Under presidents of both parties, U.S. policy toward China has been tugged in opposing directions -- our abhorrence of its repression and our concern about its possible territorial ambitions are countered by our desire to trade in that huge market and our hope that we can influence its human rights policies and discourage its aggressive tendencies. The results are mixed; not a disaster but not a triumph for U.S. policy goals, either. Cuba is no military threat and not much of a market, so our distaste for Castro's ideology dominates our policy toward that nation far more than anti-communism determines our approach to China.
Arlington, Va.: How long do you figure Christie Whitman can stand having her legs cut out from under her or is that just the difference between being governor and a lowly Cabinet dweeb?
David S. Broder: I don't know how long Gov. Whitman can hang in. The custom of resigning over principle was never as strong in the U.S. as in Britain, and it has atrophied in the last few decades. I think the last Cabinet-level official to resign because of disagreement with the president's policies was Cy Vance in the Carter administration -- a long time back.
Greenbelt, Md.: In an article appearing in the op-ed section of The New York Times today a writer observed that farm belt states whose electoral votes went for George Bush would see relatively less in tax cut benefits, but relatively more in budget cuts under the president's economic blueprint. The reverse would be true of states such as New York and California that voted for Al Gore. Political polls show that Americans like the idea of lower taxes and less government services in the abstract, but when faced with concrete proposals, the level of support begins to drop off. The question is will farm state residents who identify with the Republican Party continue their present political affiliation and feel content with lower taxes/smaller government in the abstract; but in reality not have their taxes reduced significantly and experience significant reductions in government farm programs subsidies?
David S. Broder: Thanks for another good question. Your assumption seems to be that the tax and spending proposals from the Bush White House will be approved and take effect. With Sen. Grassley of Iowa as chairman of Finance, Rep. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, Calif., as chairman of Ways and Means, and ag-minded chairmen of the two Ag committees, I doubt that the tilt of the legislation that emerges from Congress will be anti-rural.
Washington, D.C.: Mr. Broder, it seems that just three months into the job, President Bush is doing far better than most people would have thought. He is making sound decisions, being kept carefully on "script" and looked very presidential during this morning's comments on the China spy plane situation. Your thoughts on how he is being perceived by the general American public? Thanks!
David S. Broder: My travels in the Midwest and the West Coast the last few weeks suggest that there is broad approval of President Bush's demeanor and public appearances as President, and a sense that he has surrounded himself with able people, starting with Vice President Cheney. But the reaction to his domestic policy decisions is very mixed--and he has yet to sell many people on the wisdom of giving top priority to a very large tax cut, tilted to the wealthiest Americans.
Rockville, Md.: Who are currently the front-runners for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination?
David S. Broder: You may be ready to think about 2004, but I am not. And press rankings of likely future nominees three years in advance are almost always wrong. Ask me again two years from now.
Portland, Ore.: I guess I'm wondering when gridlock will officially begin. It seems to me with the Congress so evenly divided and the Republicans having many more senators up for election in 2002, that the Democrats major interest is in seeing nothing happen. Will the Democrats really cooperate with any significant Republican initiatives? Does this mean we can start to expect many more presidential directives rather than bills passed by Congress?
David S. Broder: I am a little more hopeful than you are on avoiding total gridlock in Washington. For example, the education reforms are likely to be passed this year, along with a substantial increase in federal school funding. I think there is quite a good chance of agreement on a patients bill of rights. And we are also likely to have a campaign finance bill sent to, and signed by, the president. There will also be a tax cut of some size -- not a bad showing compared to what we have seen in the past.
Arlington, Tex.: Down here it has been said that with Bush, "What you see is not what you get. What you hear is not what you get. What you get is what you get." So, I'm a little concerned that the one thing we've gotten since President Bush is a declining economy. Is there something positive I'm missing?
David S. Broder: I like the saying, and believe it. The decline in the economy -- or perhaps the right word is slowdown -- began in calendar 2000 and probably has more to do with Federal Reserve policies than anything Clinton did or that Bush or Gore advocated. I'm incapable of gauging how long or how severe the shakeout will be, but obviously, with every passing month, more of the political responsibility will attach to the current President. He and the GOP will be judged on where we stand in 2002 and 2004.
Tulsa, Okla.: What are the Democrats going to do with this budget that appears at first blush to reduce funding for children's medical programs and other programs designed to protect our children?
David S. Broder: The Democrats offered a lot of criticism and some alternatives to the budget as it went through the House and Senate, and you can be sure you will hear a great deal more from them when the specific appropriations bills start to be called up for debate.
Collinsville, Ala.: Mr. Broder: Several moderate Baptist friends of mine -- movers and shakers in their own right -- seem to think President Bush pulled a fast one on them with his faith-based initiative plan.
They think he'd all to ready to see it fade because it worked its political magic.
I know there is this friction between Dilulio and Marvin Olasky; but that may not be the point.
Question is, when is The Post gonna send Edsall or you out there to see what the political implications of Lee Atwater's old trump card -- see what the implications of this Baptist case study in Texas is for the rest of us when it comes to the split between moderate faction and the fundamentalist faction over faith based initiatives.
Lot of fertile ground yet to be explored here.
David S. Broder: Thanks for the suggestion. I'll share it with Tom Edsall and our editors.
Portland, Ore.: If the Democrats do regain Congress in 2002, what does that mean for President Bush? When the Republicans gained Congress in 1994 both President Clinton and the Congress were able to cooperate and pass some significant legislation. Do you think the same situation will arise if the parties are reversed? Or would we just see more gridlock until 2004?
David S. Broder: That's a good question, but I'm reluctant to speculate. The shock of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994 caused President Clinton to adopt a whole new strategy in mid-term -- the so-called triangulation strategy -- and that in turn set the stage for the deals that led to signing of the welfare bill and the higher minimum wage bill and other legislation in 1996. How President Bush would deal with a Democratic Congress is something I cannot possibly judge.
Washington, D.C.: Can you comment on why Sen. Edwards of North Carolina seems to have become the fair-haired poster child for 2004? It seems odd that the Great Mentioner is mentioning a freshman senator so often and so enthusiastically.
David S. Broder: A couple reasons why Sen. Edwards is drawing so much press attention. One, it has been noticed that Democrats are more competitive in presidential races when they nominate someone from the South or a Border State. Two, he was high on Vice President Gore's list of possible running-mates. And three, he and his staff have been agressive in seeking press coverage. I would caution you, however, that candidates who fascinate the press often are less fascinating to the voters.
Washington, D.C.: The president is offering a $2.5 billion increase for education, and a $1.6 TRILLION tax cut. Your statement that his emphasis is on tax cuts and education falls into the trap his press strategists are pushing (and all media seems to be swallowing as well). His emphasis is on tax cuts; all other increases in his budget are symbolic at best. And the argument that education is getting more money than other agencies is also a strategy that has worked on the media -- the emphasis should be on the budget's inability to address the county's needs.
David S. Broder: As you know, I have questioned the size and the composition of the Bush tax cuts many times in columns and in these Web chats. No disagreement there. But the Bush education proposals are significant, in my view, both in substantive policy terms and in scale, when measured against past Republican efforts to eliminate the Department of Education and against the current Federal education expenditures.
Welcome, N.C.: Why don't the media come clean and explain to the public that a 4 percent cap on a budget INCREASE does not mean a DECREASE in spending for whatever program is in question?
An INCREASE/CAP is not a DECREASE/CUT! DUH!
David S. Broder: Well, the 4 percent overall increase in spending does in fact mean that some programs are being cut -- some in absolute terms, and many more when measured in constant dollars and increasing populations being served.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think Sen. Tom Daschle [D-S.D.] is the most influential elected Democrat right now? Do you think he has his sights on a presidential run?
David S. Broder: This will have to be my final question for this hour. Thanks for all the good ones; I'll do this again soon.
Yes, I think Senate Daschle is the most influential national Democratic leader and spokesman right now. I cannot tell you whether he has presidential ambitions, but he would have support from many Democrats for that position, I believe.
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