An open letter to the president-elect:
Dear George,The ruffles and flourishes and salutes to "Mr. President" will be upon you soon enough - and I know that won't make you totally unhappy - but for the moment, before the panoply of office encases you, might a friendly critic offer a few quick thoughts on economic policy?
First, the key to your success, if you are to have it, will lie in moving fast. At the moment, many who were never on your side are emphasizing the necessity of "working with" Congress, a task that is indeed essential but that must be approached in the same spirit that a lion trainer would "work with" a lion.
Your 40-state, 54-percent landslide gives you a better whip than is generally acknowledged. The lions of Capitol Hill are circling already; Dan Rostenkowski is growling that if you try to change anything in the tax code, he may welsh on his agreement to hold the rates down.
But, George, your consistent response must be that the strongest identifying theme of your economic campaign was your insistence that you would not raise taxes. It was mocked from the start by journalists and by opponents in both parties, who bought the lie that taxes were cut too sharply under Ronald Reagan.
And what a lie it was. For the reality is that taxes haven't been cut at all. Federal taxes took 19.4 percent of the gross national product in 1980 under Jimmy Carter; they are taking an absolutely identical portion in 1988 under Ronald Reagan, and the trend is higher. If it isn't reversed quickly, the country could soon be back in 1970s-style stagflation.
So it's not just possible to avoid higher taxes; it's downright urgent. Your initial thrust, quite properly, will be on encouraging capital investment, to shift resources from debt accumulation to productive growth. The notion that this is a class-war issue was the lowest slur of the campaign; as John Kennedy could have informed Michael Dukakis, a rising tide lifts all boats - but a rising tax burden could sink them.
To succeed, though, you'll have to move with extraordinary dispatch in the opening weeks of your presidency. Ronald Reagan in 1981 had a clear economic agenda, and won clear successes, but in the years that followed he too often drifted. We are still living off the benefits of what was achieved during that brief "window of opportunity," but the grievous federal deficits we now confront underline the failure to act with continuing power and clarity to get congressional spending under control. We'll need a better job on the budget from you.
You and Congress may well have the shortest honeymoon since Mike Tyson's. But that's OK, George; they don't have to love you to read the election results. And even a reluctant politician will have to acknowledge that holding the line on taxes was your best issue all year long, the issue with which you beat Bob Dole in the winter and Michael Dukakis in the fall.
Second, while moving to strengthen our economic performance through sensible tax changes, you will want to use the "bully pulpit" to explain the difference between economic and social problems, a distinction almost entirely blurred by the media tendency to assume that any perceived social problem must inevitably be solved by greatly expanded, and usually counterproductive, federal spending.
So please do lead us toward that "kinder, gentler" nation you promised, even if that involves being less than kind and gentle to Jim Wright.
And, in a lighter vein, let those who doubt your capacity for moral leadership reflect on the fact that you may already have been responsible for a religious revival in America: Once you become president, George, even the atheists will be praying every night for your good health - lest the country be saddled with Dan Quayle.
You're obviously a smarter cookie than most Americans originally realized. Get to work with speed and decisiveness, and there could be some happy surprises ahead - for you, for the economy and for the nation. Congratulations and good luck; here's hoping that the revenge of the wimps is truly at hand.
All the best,