WHEN PRESIDENT BUSH delivered a Rose Garden speech last week calling for a tax cut of "at least $550 billion," it was cast as a significant retreat from his original proposal of $726 billion through 2013. That may be, but what was striking to us was that Mr. Bush wouldn't simply take the $350 billion in tax cuts he is guaranteed and declare victory. After all, as Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) pointed out in a speech on the Senate floor in which he pledged to hold the line at $350 billion, when reports about the administration's tax cut proposals first began to dribble out last fall, the figures began at $150 billion, then crept up to $300 billion. The notion that a $700 billion-plus tax cut was needed didn't come up until just before the plan was unveiled. "If you review where the growth package started, at about $150 billion," Mr. Grassley noted, "you could say the ball has been moved substantially." Indeed, from our perspective, even at $350 billion the ball has been moved way too far.
Mr. Bush talked a lot in the Rose Garden about the need for tax cuts "right away," to "do it now," for "immediate tax relief." But if the point is to stimulate the economy, his package isn't particularly well crafted to do that. Just a sliver of the proposed $726 billion in tax cuts -- 5.5 percent -- would take effect this fiscal year, and only one-fifth would occur by the end of fiscal 2004. Moreover, because the cuts are skewed to the wealthy, much of that money would go to those more likely to save it than to spend it. Perhaps most important, the piece of the president's plan that would likely be left out by keeping the tax cut to a "mere" $350 billion would be ending the double taxation of dividends -- a change that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan supports but says would do little to jump-start the economy.
At least since the Clinton administration, big legislative fights have had all the earmarks of political campaigns, so the Rose Garden was just the beginning of the administration's "flood the zone" strategy, in which officials fan out to the states of key senators to flack the tax package. Significantly, they seem to hold out fewer hopes of luring back the four defecting Republicans -- Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio), who balked at anything greater than $350 billion, plus John McCain (Ariz.) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.), who refused to vote for any cuts -- than of picking off centrist Democrats such as John Breaux (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.). Those tempted by the dangling of goodies ought to remember how the White House repaid Democrats who voted for its tax cut last time: The president campaigned against them. Meanwhile, the administration's allies are using even more heavy-handed tactics. The conservative Club for Growth is airing television ads in the home states of Ms. Snowe and Mr. Voinovich that sneeringly compare "so-called Republicans" who "stand in the way" of the tax cuts to "so-called allies like France." But this bludgeoning could backfire: In both states, voters value their senators' independence, and in Maine, one-third of the population is of French Canadian origin.
Mr. Bush may be banking on postwar popularity to get his way. Or he could be positioning himself to avoid blame -- and point the finger at Democrats -- if the tax cut is limited and the economy still lags. But the voters themselves don't seem to be clamoring for tax cuts or taking to the streets to end the double taxation of dividends; they seem to understand, far better than the White House, the long-term dangers of record deficits, which will approach $400 billion in the next fiscal year. In any event, as Mr. Bush pointed out in the Rose Garden, he has already won the debate over whether taxes should be cut. "The 'if' is over with," the president said. To paraphrase Woody Allen, he ought to take the $350 billion and run.