SYNOPSIS: Financial tricks and vague proposals center the Bush tax scheme

The commentariat seems shocked by George W. Bush's brazenness in the debate debate. Not only has he casually tossed aside the longstanding principle that the question of when and how the candidates will debate should not be a political issue; not only is he shamelessly insisting that 60 minutes of shmoozing with Larry King is the moral equivalent of 90 minutes of serious debate carried on all major networks; but then he turns around and accuses Al Gore of refusing to debate. What, ask my colleagues, makes him think he can get away with this?

But to anyone who has followed Mr. Bush's pronouncements on economic policy issues that is, really looked at what he says, not at how what he says plays in the polls his attempt to pull a fast one on the debates comes as no surprise. Throughout the campaign Mr. Bush has counted on his personal charm to protect him from awkward questions about his economic proposals. Why shouldn't he imagine that he can do the same on this issue?

After all, most reporting accepts Mr. Bush's numbers on his tax cut, which his campaign likes to describe as costing the Treasury $1.3 trillion over the next decade, compared with a projected $2.2 trillion surplus. Few reporters have noticed that that comparison turns out to be full of sly tricks designed to make the tax cut look less irresponsible than it is.

The biggest trick involves counting $400 billion of Medicare funds in the budget surplus number, even though the Republican Congress insists that these funds are in a "lock- box." Another big trick involves not mentioning that the tax cut will reduce the rate at which the federal debt is paid down, indirectly costing an extra $300 billion or so in interest payments. Then there is a series of little accounting tricks a hundred billion here, another hundred billion there, eventually adding up to real money.

Oh, and almost nobody has noticed that Mr. Bush's headline number is also held down by a feature of his plan that will come as a rude shock if the plan ever becomes law: Millions of taxpayers won't actually get the tax cuts they think they have been promised, because they will end up paying the alternative minimum tax instead.

But Mr. Bush's number games on taxes pale in comparison with his breathtaking audacity on Social Security. In case you have been in hibernation these last six months: Mr. Bush has proposed with great fanfare a partial privatization of Social Security, an idea that has its virtues (and its vices, but never mind that right now). But what is his plan? All we know is that he proposes to allow individuals to invest part of the money they currently contribute to Social Security, which will reduce the inflow of money into the Social Security system by $1.3 trillion over the next decade and that he insists he will not cut benefits.

But if contributions are down, and benefits are not, where does the money come from? Mr. Bush hasn't said and he insists that he has nothing more to say. "My position on Social Security is where it is," he declared a few days ago.

Mr. Bush hopes, in other words, that he can cover up the absence of any actual plan to pay for his proposals with sheer bravado. And by and large he has been getting away with it. How many news reports have you seen explaining that he intends to bolster the Social Security system with stock market returns? Mr. Bush said he had a plan, and reporters assumed that he meant it missing the simple fact that he has never said a word about bolstering, that the only specifics we have heard from him will weaken, not strengthen, Social Security finances. And the public probably still believes his claim that he has a "plan to save Social Security."

So why, having gotten away with so much already, shouldn't Mr. Bush imagine that he can get away with snubbing the debate commission, and going on Larry King instead?

A report in this newspaper quoted an unnamed Bush adviser as declaring: "We're not stupid. We've been looking at this. Nobody knows who the commission is." In other words, we're not stupid, but the public is. And Mr. Bush's advisers apparently believe with history on their side that he can get away with just about anything if he does it with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face. Or maybe a smirk.

Originally published in The New York Times, 9.6.00