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Campaign Promises And Tax Truths

WHEN congressional Democrats went home during the Easter recess they heard the same message from constituents that was being given to their Republican colleagues: Yes, we still want change - but we don't want to pay too much for it.

Meanwhile, George Bush, his spirits probably still dragging, remains quiet on the sidelines.

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Mr. Bush has had his day; he's had his say. Indeed, ex-presidents should stay quiet. Yet if Bush were inclined to speak up, he could well say: "I warned you. Bill Clinton will be a tax-and-spend president."

Most Americans, it seems, still like all those good things that Mr. Clinton promised during the campaign. They want economic stimulus, jobs programs, highway construction, childhood immunization for all youngsters, community development, waste water treatment facilities, student financial aid, and so on, capped by a health plan that will cover everyone.

But what Americans now are having trouble swallowing is the administration's piecemeal disclosure that the price tag on all these programs is going to be extremely high and that just about all of us, except the poor, will have to dig deeply into our pockets to pay for it.

The Clinton campaign promise, which also included a pledge to trim the deficit decisively, was to spare those in the middle-income brackets from new or increased taxes. The "wealthy" would pick up the bill, said Clinton.

But now it becomes clear that those in the "middle" will have to come up with most of the revenue for the president's ambitious initiatives.

The president brands the resistance to his programs from the Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Bob Dole, as "gridlock," asserting that this is precisely the kind of opposition to change that he had promised to stop and which the voters had told him they wanted to have him stop.

And with a strong majority of Democrats in both the House and Senate, Clinton should - and probably expected to - push aside any kind of Republican roadblocks. These Democrats do express loyalty to the president, particularly since he is a new president. They will deliver their support to Clinton whenever possible.

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But the members of Congress know that their real boss is the voter back home. They know they'd better listen or many of them won't be back in Washington after the next election.

What really has stirred up these constituents, Democratic as well as Republican, is the administration's talk of an energy tax to help fund present and new government spending, plus a value-added tax to pay for a program to overhaul health care.

A few weeks ago Clinton said publicly and flatly there would be no value-added tax (like a sales tax, but applied to articles at various stages of production). Then his press chief said such a tax was not ruled out.

Since then Vice President Al Gore Jr. has sought to dampen concern that a VAT was in prospect. Yet the public, conditioned to a president who sometimes changes his mind on commitments, still is worried that this tax and some kind of an energy tax are on the horizon.

As a governor, Clinton was known for his adroitness in moving programs forward with a promise here and a promise there, together with pulling away from a promise here and pulling away from a promise there.

He received much criticism for this political agility. But, by and large, he was considered to be a successful governor because, in one way or another, he did get things done.

That will be his test as president, too. This early skirmish with the Senate Republicans, plus a few Senate Democrats, is only one of many he will face in coming months and years. But it has already become very important in shaping this administration's future.

The Republicans have delivered a blow, a solid blow, to Clinton. He can recover from it and move on to getting most of his programs through. But this clash could become a continuing strong resistance that would cut back deeply on the president's plans and initiatives. Clinton is at a crossroads.

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