WASHINGTON – Democrats are honing an election-year strategy of using record federal deficits to try and undermine the credibility of President Bush and Congress' majority Republicans.
The GOP will write Congress' budget this year, a process that starts next week when legislators return from their President's Day recess. But Democrats plan to introduce their own fiscal blueprints exceeding Bush's goal of halving deficits in five years — with at least one Democratic budget claiming balance in a decade.
Democrats say this will help them underscore the budget's screaming freefall under Bush, which they say is emblematic of his mishandling of the economy. They hope that will feed doubts about his credibility, which flow chiefly from his decision to invade Iraq and his National Guard (search) service during the Vietnam War.
"The deficit is going to be a symbol of their credibility problem, and the budget is going to be the document we use" to make that argument, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (search), D-Ill., a member of the House Budget Committee who in the 1990's was a White House political aide to President Clinton.
"It's kind of like Bonnie and Clyde complaining about banking laws," countered Senate Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles (search), R-Okla., evoking the 1930s bank robbers.
"I don't think they have a lot of credibility about deficits" because most Democrats want to raise spending, he said.
The numbers are stark. A record $237 billion federal surplus in 2000 under President Clinton lurched abruptly to a $375 billion deficit last year, the largest ever in dollar terms. The administration expects a worse-still $521 billion shortfall this year.
Bush sent lawmakers a budget on Feb. 2 that proposes halving the gap to $237 billion by 2009. Worried about alienating conservatives, top Republicans want to cut more spending and erase more red ink than Bush proposed - if they can find enough votes from nervous GOP moderates to do so.
Nine months from Election Day, the public's faith in Bush as a fiscal manager may already be eroding. An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted last month showed 36 percent of respondents trust Bush to do a better job of handling budget deficits, while 52 percent prefer congressional Democrats.
"It's having an effect on Bush," said South Carolina Rep. John Spratt, top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. "It's part of the reason his numbers are softening."
Republicans blame the deficits largely on the recession. Bush has addressed the more important challenges of reviving the economy, waging war and thwarting terrorists, they say.
"The president's credibility will be evident in results, and we're moving from recession to recovery, we're strengthening national security and protecting the homeland," said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.
On the campaign trail, presidential rivals Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C., are criticizing Bush over the budget. Kerry is pledging to at least halve the shortfall and Edwards is promising smaller deficits each year.
In Congress, Democrats are contrasting the surging red ink with Bush's assurances in 2001 - his first year in the White House - that he could cut taxes, shrink the accumulated national debt and produce annual surpluses indefinitely.
Democrats also attack Bush's credibility by arguing that:
— By writing only a five-year budget, Bush avoided showing worsening deficits later, when the baby boom generation retires and the costs of his plan to make his tax cuts permanent kick in. Congressional Republicans plan to do the same thing.
— Bush's budget masks even larger deficits by omitting future costs of U.S. forces in Iraq, easing the alternative minimum tax before it hits more middle-income families, his planned manned mission to Mars and other expenses.
— Backup documents to Bush's budget show that to reduce deficits, it assumes cuts in 2006 and beyond for child care, veterans, education and other programs — reductions Democrats say will never happen. These proposals will be revisited every year, however.
Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, says fiscally conservative Democrats will offer a plan to balance in a decade. Spratt and other top House Democrats may produce a separate 10-year plan or write one with their conservative colleagues. The budgets will have smaller tax cuts and more spending for schools, veterans and other domestic areas than Bush wants.
Senate Democrats may produce their own, similar budget or offer amendments to the GOP plan.