Ballot Box

Bush and the People’s Money

George W. Bush has an argument that he thinks clinches the case for his $2.1 trillion tax cut, or as he calls it, his $1.6 trillion tax cut. The argument is the budget surplus is “the people’s money.” The federal government is taking in more than it needs. So it should give the extra cash back to the people who pay the taxes.

“This surplus is not the government’s money,” he said in a characteristic line yesterday in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “It’s the people’s money. And I believe we ought to listen to the people of America and share that money with the people who pay the bills.” This is only one example of dozens of similar constructs. In his budget message to Congress, Bush said he was merely demanding a “refund” on behalf of taxpayers.

Democrats are having some trouble coming up with a snappy comeback to this bit of demagoguery. They don’t want to argue with Bush too directly lest they lend credence to the Republican calumny that they think all money belongs to the government. Liberals are desperately afraid to offer an answer that smacks of the view that Bush claims they hold, which is that the surplus is really the government’s money.

Opponents of the Bush tax cut might be able to respond more effectively if they focused on the grammatical sleight of hand implicit in his comments. The president invariably refers to the budget surplus in the first- or second-person plural possessive–it’s “our money” or “your money.” But he tends to describe the deficit and other public obligations in the third-person singular or plural. Washington–or merely “they”–will spend all our hard-earned money if “we” don’t stop them.

But who is this “they” Bush keeps talking about? It’s none other than you, the people, of course. Bush is fully capable of acknowledging this on other occasions, such as when he points out that the White House is “your” house, not his house. But for apparent reasons, he tends not to use the first- or the second-person formulation when he’s talking about the national debt or the cost of his missile defense system. He never notes that it’s the people’s multitrillion dollar debt or military hardware that you need to buy yourself in coming years. If he did, you might wonder whether it made sense to take back the money you’re going to need to pay for that stuff.

To argue with Bush, Democrats don’t need to make a case that the surplus isn’t “your” money. They need to explain that to whatever extent you think of the surplus as your money, you should also think of the government’s obligations and undertakings as yours as well. If the surplus belongs to you, so does the national debt. It’s that big line of revolving credit you and a couple of hundred million other people began drawing down in the 1980s. Similarly, the most pressing demands for increases in government spending, such as increases in military salaries, or the demand for prescription drugs for the elderly, or money to pay for educational testing in every year of grade schools, are the big purchases you’re planning on making in the next few years. The long-term obligations of Social Security and Medicare are your long-term liabilities.

In addition to questioning Bush’s numbers, Democrats might do well to extend his rhetorically effective personalization of public finance. Of course it’s your money, they could say. Unfortunately, you’ve already spent most of it.