Democrats Should Argue: ‘Secure Homeland First’

Posted January 15, 2003 at 3:55pm

Remember the slogan President Bill Clinton used to thwart Republican tax cuts, “Save Social Security First”? Now, Democrats should adopt a new one: “Protect Homeland Security First.”

This time, though, the slogan should not be designed primarily as an anti-tax-cut ploy, but as a genuine assertion about national priorities: Before cutting taxes, let’s spend what we need to spend on homeland defense.

[IMGCAP(1)] It’s ridiculous for Democrats to say, as some have, that the United States is no better at preventing terrorist attacks than it was Sept. 11, 2001.

But it is true that despite progress — dispersing Al Qaeda and upgrading U.S. airline security and intelligence — the nation remains highly vulnerable.

A Council on Foreign Relations task force headed by former Sens. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) and Gary Hart (D-Colo.) reported last year that “America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil.”

Congressional Democrats say they have been told U.S. intelligence agencies fear that up to 2,000 Al Qaeda “sleeper” agents may be living in the United States, waiting to carry out terrorist activities.

Various Democrats have figured out that President Bush can be challenged “from the right” for not doing enough — or spending enough — to protect the homeland.

Senate Democrats introduced a $14 billion Comprehensive Homeland Security Act of 2003 as their top priority bill this year.

It includes $4 billion for local emergency personnel, $1.4 billion for rail security, $4.7 billion for combating bioterrorism and $1 billion to upgrade emergency communications.

At a recent House Democratic Caucus meeting, Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger had the right idea. He said Democrats “should become the party of more.”

“More police, more equipment, more anti-terrorist systems for our ports and infrastructure and more engagement of the American people in a significant way.”

Berger added: “What the Bush administration has said to the American people about their participation in the war on terrorism is, ‘Be vigilant and go shopping.’”

Curiously, despite their resolve to make homeland security a major theme, it has hardly figured in Democratic criticism of Bush’s $674 billion tax-cut proposal.

Instead, Democratic critiques have focused on three themes — none of them terribly effective politically.

The first is that the Bush plan will not work as a short-term stimulus for the economy. But Bush is not trying to fix the economy for the short run, but the long run, starting in election year 2004.

By comparison, Bush’s plan is big and bold and the $136 billion Democratic alternative is short and small. Indeed, Democrats still have no agreed-upon long-term economic plan.

There’s even a question as to whether the Democratic attack is accurate. Their proposal would give each worker a $300 rebate in 2003, but Bush says his plan provides an average tax cut of $1,083 for the nation’s 92 million tax filers.

Also, if Bush’s proposed elimination of taxes on dividend income succeeds in boosting the stock market, it could lead to more spending and job creation than the one-time Democratic rebate.

The second Democratic line of attack is that Bush’s plan is “unfair,” skewed to rich people.

But it’s questionable whether Americans respond to “class warfare” appeals, and independent analyses raise questions of whether Bush’s cut is really as unfair as Democrats allege.

Newsweek and The New York Times carried analyses by the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche, which showed that two-child families with incomes under $50,000 would get more than a 40 percent tax break under Bush’s plan.

Families with incomes of more than $1 million would get a cut of just 8.6 percent — though their dollar savings would be more than $25,000 a year, compared with around $1,000 for lower-income families.

The third Democratic line of attack has been that Bush’s tax cut would swell the federal deficit to astronomical proportions, raising long-term interest rates.

The interest rate argument may or may not be accurate — rates so far have been descending, not rising — but it’s hard to get the public excited about it.

And, according to former Congressional Budget Office Director Dan Crippen, it’s the strength of the economy that determines the size of deficits, not the government’s fiscal policy.

So, if Bush’s plan actually spurs economic growth — as Republicans claim President Ronald Reagan’s did — then deficits would dwindle instead of explode.

Better than the three arguments being used now by Democrats is this one: If Bush gives away $674 billion in tax cuts — actually, it’s close to $2.2 trillion, including interest, if his 2001 tax cuts are made permanent — that money cannot be used for other priorities.

Democrats should ask, “Which would you rather have, huge tax cuts or top-quality education? Or assistance for the uninsured? Or a decent prescription drug benefit for seniors?”

But their lead argument should be: no tax cuts until the homeland is safe from terrorism. At a minimum, this would pressure Bush to do more for homeland security than he is doing now.