WHERE is the famous ``peace dividend''? Mario Cuomo thinks he knows. President Bush is hoarding it for the 1992 election. Governor Cuomo suspects the White House will suddenly roll out big new money for the environment, education, and other domestic programs - just as the next presidential campaign gets under way.
The Bush White House shows ``magnificent deftness'' with the budget, the governor says. He calls the president and his aides ``some of the best political people Washington has ever seen, probably better than President Reagan.''
But Cuomo urges Democrats to counterattack by forcing a full-blown, three-month debate on Social Security taxes.
``The Democrats made a mistake so far in not being very, very aggressive about the Social Security issue,'' Cuomo contends.
The New York Democrat says his party must expose the Republicans' long-term strategy. That strategy includes higher taxes on working people, and the shifting of costly burdens, like the drug war, to states and cities.
``They become kinder and gentler when that's the way to go. [But] they make drugs a national concern, and it doesn't cost them any money. They make education a national concern ... but [states] have to pay the fare.'' Cuomo notes that the Reagan-Bush team has:
1. Cut the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. That was a boon to wealthy taxpayers.
2. Boosted Social Security taxes, the fastest-growing source of federal revenue. This year the tax is on the first $51,300 of income. Earnings above that are tax-free, another benefit for the wealthy.
3. Used increased Social Security income to pay day-to-day bills. The higher taxes were supposed to be saved for future retirees.
4. Shifted responsibilities to states and localities. But to pay these added costs, states are forced to increase sales taxes and real estate taxes, another burden on low-income taxpayers.
``If the American people knew everything about taxes, [there] would be a different dynamic, politically, in this country,'' Cuomo asserts.
The governor, who had lunch with 45 reporters here Feb. 13, wants Democrats to strongly support the plan of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York to roll back the latest Social Security tax hikes. If Bush responds that some other tax would then have to be raised, Cuomo would answer, ``You're right, Mr. President. But now name [a tax] that's worse than this one!''
Cuomo says the Bush White House is ``ripping off'' Social Security to mask the deficit from voters. He calls it a ``shell game.''
Ultimately, the governor says a long-term solution to America's immense federal deficit must come from three sources: higher taxes, adjustments in entitlement programs, and the peace dividend from the end of the cold war with the Soviet Union.
Cuomo urges the president, Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, and House Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington to hammer it out.
Until a solution is found, US efforts to compete economically with Japan and Europe will be hampered, Cuomo says. Interest rates will remain too high, industrial expansion will be slowed.
On other points, Governor Cuomo told reporters:
No, he is not thinking about running for president.
Yes, he will probably run for reelection as governor.
No, this is not the time for political attacks against President Bush. Rather, it is a time to debate issues, like taxes.
Cuomo humorously suggests that it would be beneficial if he could remain hidden behind a curtain, ``like ... the Wizard of Oz,'' so people could concentrate on his ideas, rather than ``what I look like, my ethnicity, my governorship, whether I have a good record, by whether I want to run for [higher] office, or whether this is some kind of political con game.''