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  •   Lott Takes GOP Tax-Cut Show on the Road

    By Thomas B. Edsall
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, February 16, 1999; Page A1

    WARREN, Mich., Feb. 15 In the heart of Reagan Democrat territory, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) today kicked off the first of 150 Republican town hall meetings, which will be held across the nation this year to change the image of the GOP from the "party of impeachment" and to focus attention on a tax-cutting, pro-defense agenda.

    "The meeting here today is to show we are finished with that," Lott said, referring to impeachment. "We are moving on," he said at the close of the session in the Ukrainian Center here, where he was joined by Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and Gov. John Engler (R). All three stressed their support for a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut, the centerpiece of the GOP agenda.

    Warren a white, working-class suburb of Detroit that in 1980 and 1984 demonstrated the strength of the Reagan revolution in recent years has made a dramatic transition from dependence on heavy manufacturing to high-tech growth center. In the process, voters in this area of Macomb County have again become willing to support Democratic candidates.

    At the meeting here, the word "impeachment" never crossed the lips of either the officials or members of the audience, which was made up of Republican activists and precinct delegates invited by state and local party officials.

    The only references to the Senate impeachment trial that concluded with President Clinton's acquittal last Friday were an offer of congratulations to Lott for his handling of the "hearings" and Lott's contention that the Senate has been working on substantive legislation. "A lot of people think we haven't been doing anything while this 'other matter' has been going on," Lott said.

    Republicans are betting heavily on the tax issue to blunt widespread public distaste for impeachment. "In this era of budget surplus, Washington has a moral duty and fiscal responsibility to lower Americans' taxes," Abraham said. Abraham said that "federal taxes consume about 21 percent of national income, the highest proportion since World War II."

    Abraham distributed tables showing that at 20.7 percent of gross domestic product, federal taxes are higher in 1999 than in any year since 1950.

    Clinton administration officials dispute Republican assertions that tax burdens are at historic highs. Using Congressional Budget Office data, the administration says that total tax collections are high because income, particularly the income of the affluent, has risen sharply.

    An administration official cites both Treasury and CBO studies to show the tax burden on individuals is at a record low: "According to the CBO, the effective federal tax rate of the 20 percent of American families with middle incomes fell from 19.2 percent in 1992 to 18.9 percent in 1999 that's the lowest tax rate since data were first reported 20 years ago."

    Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a battle over who benefits most from an across-the-board tax cut. Lott and Abraham said that it is only fair to return the federal surplus to taxpayers in proportion to the taxes each paid.

    In response to charges that the GOP cut would give far more to the rich than to the middle class, Lott countered that Democrats are using "class warfare to prove something is not fair. ... [The 10 percent cut] makes common sense, not class warfare sense."

    Democrats cite a study by the labor-backed Citizens for Tax Justice showing that 62 percent of the benefits would go to the 10 percent of taxpayers who earn the highest amount of income. The lowest 60 percent of income earners would get a tax cut averaging $99 while the 1 percent of taxpayers making more than $301,000 a year would get a cut averaging $20,697.

    Lott brought the case for the 10 percent cut here in hopes of reviving GOP support among a key segment of the electorate, working-class whites.

    After the 1984 election, pollster Stan Greenberg conducted a series of focus groups that sent shock waves through the Democratic Party. Greenberg wrote that opposition to government and taxes overlapped with a view among whites that government under Democrats used tax dollars to unfairly benefit blacks. That sentiment was the wellspring of the so-called Reagan Democrats, many of them members of the United Auto Workers, who defected from the Democratic Party to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 presidential elections.

    Democrats in the 1980s feared that trends in Macomb County where voters in 1960 recorded the highest margin for John F. Kennedy of any suburban county in the nation represented a devastating loss of a core constituency of the New Deal coalition.

    But the 1990s have shown a different trend. In 1996, Clinton brought the county back into the Democratic fold, as he broke Republican holds on suburban counties across the country, taking stands that muted racial conflict. The local Democratic Party has a 16 to 9 majority on the county commission.

    The county itself has undergone an economic transformation. While it is still dependent on the auto industry, the jobs being created here are in the computer-aided design industry. "We've managed to have a renaissance on the high-end, high-skill service side," said James Jacobs, a specialist in community and economic development at Macomb Community College.

    For Republicans to pick Warren as the site of their town meeting, Jacobs contended, is to pick an older section that is "sort of like the ghost of Macomb County past. They are living in a world that did exist in the 1980s, but a lot of changes have occurred since then."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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