House Republicans took their $792 billion tax cut on the road today, promising in effect a mail-in cash rebate for working families who paid into the budget surplus with the "sweat of their brow." But in this blue-collar Chicago suburb, at least, even that kind of enticement was a hard sell.
As part of a carefully scripted GOP "tax rally" to create pressure on President Clinton to reconsider his veto threat, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) held four $1 bills aloft before 250 workers at the ITW Shakeproof Automotive Products factory here, a sprawling facility that makes nuts and bolts for new cars. It was going to be a nut-and-bolts kind of speech.
"This is the surplus for the next 10 years. For every four dollars, we are going to take three dollars and pay off the debt," Hastert patiently explained, setting three bills to the side. "And then we are going to take this one dollar and give it back to the American people."
Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) told those gathered here the choice was simple: whether to spend the surplus, as he said Clinton and the Democrats favor, or "give it back to the people who overpaid" in taxes.
But some of the workers seemed to be having little of it, and in interviews expressed considerable skepticism that the middle class the House Republicans were talking about was their middle class.
Shipping clerk David Leatherman, 32, who earns $22 an hour, said, "I don't think it'll help me any, because I don't make enough to really get anything back. If they save me $100, they can keep it. It doesn't do me any good."
Richard Whitehead, a 58-year-old assembly line inspector who is five months short of retirement eligibility, said that while the one percentage point across-the-board income tax cut may "sound good," he reckons workers making $30,000 to $40,000 as he does are not likely to notice the difference.
"The last tax cut I remember was in 1974 or 1975, under [President Gerald] Ford, and I got $65 back when I filed," Whitehead said. "One year, they cut taxes back a little, but you can't trust them because a few years later they're right back up there."
Hastert's appearance helped to kick off a three-week GOP media blitz designed by leaders to counteract White House charges that the costly tax plan is "reckless" and would jeopardize efforts to shore up Social Security and Medicare. They also hope to use the tax bill to energize their conservative base heading into the 2000 election, even though most polls indicate widespread voter indifference or opposition to tax cuts in an era of record economic growth.
The 10-year package would cut all income tax rates by one percentage point, phase out the so-called marriage tax penalty, eliminate the estate tax, reduce capital gains taxes, enhance investments in IRAs and help defray the cost of education, health care and long-term care for the elderly.
An ABC News poll in late July showed that, given a choice of options for using the surplus, only 22 percent of Americans favored tax cuts. A recent Gallup Poll found that, by 61 percent to 33 percent, Americans would prefer to boost spending for education, defense or Medicare rather than cut taxes. In another survey for the Wall Street Journal, people were asked what problems facing the nation concerned them the most. Only 9 percent mentioned taxes.
A notable exception is a Wirthlin Worldwide poll released by the Republicans this week showing that 67 percent of those interviewed said they approve of the tax bill and that 59 percent want the president to sign it.
While acknowledging the uphill battle they face, Republicans insist that Clinton will come under mounting pressure to sign the bill once Americans learn the details and realize that it is laced with numerous benefits for them.
"When you talk about a $792 billion tax cut, it's natural people's eyes glaze over," said Pete Jeffries, a Hastert spokesman. "But when you chop it into small pieces and explain to people [all the] benefits . . . they're going to be with us in the end."
Today, Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.) made a pitch for the tax bill during an appearance at a farm festival in Georgetown, Del. Dozens of House members are turning to talk radio to promote various aspects of the bill. Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is highlighting the benefits for baby boomers and seniors. And House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) will defend the plan at two town meetings in Dallas next week.
"Instead of the president's soundbites of half-truths and outright lies about the Republican plan, Republicans will take their message straight to voters, one on one, in every media market in the country," said Mark Pfeifle, a Republican National Committee spokesman.
But Democrats say that, absent a multimillion-dollar GOP national television advertising campaign, they doubt the Republicans' August road show, with its dependence on free media coverage, will do much to alter public opinion.
"Selling a bad product is not an easy thing to do," said a senior House Democratic aide. "A popular president in a booming economy is up against two unknowns, [Senate Majority Leader Trent] Lott and Hastert. That's a trick if they can do it."
Democratic analysts believe Republicans are playing a losing hand on taxes because voters have more confidence in the Democrats' economic strategy--which calls for a far smaller, more targeted tax cut--and are skeptical of the huge projected surpluses Republicans are counting on to finance their plan. Even the Wirthlin poll touted by the GOP showed that 62 percent of Americans approve of Clinton's handling of his job, one of the president's highest approval ratings since taking office.
"Tax cutting is a lot less important to voters now than it has been at other times," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic consultant. "When people care about tax cuts, it's not a matter of philosophy, it's a feeling they need more money in their pockets. We're at a moment when having more money in their pockets is less of a concern than it can be."
"It's awful hard to overcome Clinton's message," conceded GOP consultant Ed Goes. "He has the bully pulpit, a much bigger microphone."
Nonetheless, Hastert's mission today in this Illinois town 40 miles northwest of Chicago was to drive home the message that Clinton views the budget surplus as a "great opportunity to make government programs bigger," while Republicans in Congress "believe the American people should have a little bit more money in their pockets."
But Rocky Turner, 43, a manager in a small ITW Shakeproof satellite plant, said after the speech, "I'm skeptical, frankly."
"How can you have a surplus when you're in debt?" he said. "Anyway, us working stiffs have been cheated so many times and we've heard all the rhetoric before. But you never know, maybe something will come out of this."
Claiborne reported from Elgin, Ill., Pianin from Washington.
CAPTION: Waving $1 bills, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) tries to sell the GOP tax cut plan to workers at a nuts-and-bolts factory in Elgin, Ill.