WASHINGTON – While Democratic strategists are hoping a renewed focus on economic issues will help boost their chances in next month's elections, the most prominent Democrats have been cautious about discussing the future of the Bush administration's tax cuts.
The tax cut enacted last year is the most disputed part of Bush's economic plan, but few of the Democrats considering a run for the White House in 2004 have mentioned changes they would make in it.
"Democrats have a strong case against the economic policies of President Bush and the Republicans," said Gene Sperling, who was a top economic adviser in the Clinton administration. "But many understandably fear they'll be effectively demagogued if they get too specific about more painful measures that might be needed."
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he opposed the sharp tax cuts he thinks are sapping the strength of the country. North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman have called for steps to trim back future tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
All the Democrats have generally resisted the GOP proposal to make the tax cuts permanent.
But some of the more prominent Democrats in the group, including 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, have not called for rolling back the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry called for "a return to the fiscal responsibility we gave this country in 1993 when we passed the Deficit Reduction Act."
Longtime Democratic activists say the leaders in their party recognize that calling for a repeal of the tax would not change the tax plan, but would give Bush and other Republicans an issue to use as a bludgeon in an election year.
And the Nov. 5 elections are fast approaching.
Democrats are pushing hard to make the economy the top issue in the election debate, but Republicans counter that Democrats do not necessarily have an advantage. Recent public polls have shown Democrats with a slight edge or the two parties competitive on the economy.
Republican pollster Mathew Dowd wrote GOP leaders this week that "Democrats do not have the voters' overwhelming trust on the economy and have no real solutions from their leaders." He concluded, "The Republicans are in a great position to win the debate on the economy in this election."
Leading Democrats have been speaking out on the economy in recent weeks, but their reticence to directly take on the tax cut has limited the alternative approaches they can offer.
"Daschle and Gephardt have the responsibility of keeping or generating the majority," said political analyst Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution. "Gore, out of consideration to their concerns, has basically refused to take it on."
Gore talked about the economy at Brookings at the beginning of the month, criticizing the Bush administration, calling for a midcourse correction and challenging Bush to remove less effective members of his economic team. Asked specifically about rolling back the tax cuts, Gore said all options should be on the table.
Gephardt delivered an economic address in the House in late September in which he listed the many economic problems in the country since Bush has been president.
Gephardt and Daschle have called for an economic summit. Gephardt planned to talk about the economy again Tuesday and Daschle is likely to address it this week from the floor of the Senate.
Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards also plan talks on the economy in the coming days. Speaking from far outside Washington, Dean has been one of the most outspoken on the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, the economy and almost everything else.
When Dean was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this year about the cost of his proposal on universal health care, the Vermont governor didn't hesitate.
"It would cost about half of the cost of the president's tax cut," Dean said, "which I think should be pretty much repealed."