Democrats' Dilemma

Washington — Democratic candidate Bobby Casey was doing well debating Republican Sen. Rick Santorum on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday when moderator Tim Russert pressed him to tell how he would fulfill his pledge to balance the federal budget. “Which programs would you cut?” Russert asked. Casey did not name one program.

“There are lots of ways to cut,” said Casey. He quickly added “the first thing you have to do” is raise taxes on the top 1 percent of income by rolling back Bush tax reductions. He suggested closing “some tax loopholes” — mentioning only “offshore tax loopholes” (an issue ignored since Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign). Drawing on experience in Pennsylvania state government as former auditor general and current treasurer, Casey said, “Sometimes you try to limit the number of consultants.”

That dismal response will not lose for Casey what has been considered the surest Democratic chance for a Republican-held Senate seat. The problem facing Democrats is the dilemma if they gain control of the government in the 2006 and 2008 elections. Casey, a moderate liberal, is typical of Democrats unwilling to downsize social welfare programs. After pummeling Republicans about budget deficits, their only recourse is higher taxes — a course fraught with political and economic perils.

Robert P. Casey Jr. is the son of a courageous anti-abortion governor with a name that is magic in Pennsylvania politics. But old Democratic hands, recalling Casey’s collapse in the 2002 primary for governor, have feared Santorum’s reputation as a strong finisher. Indeed, recent surveys by Quinnipiac, Keystone and Rasmussen show Casey’s once commanding lead reduced to single digits (though Gallup still shows an 18-point lead). With Casey not known for being too fast on his feet, Democrats have worried about him going head-to-head with a political slasher like Santorum.

But Casey was well briefed by consultant Paul Begala, a longtime servitor of the Casey family. Furthermore, Casey has the Democratic advantage of campaigning against an unpopular war and an unpopular president.

Only when Russert asked his balanced budget question did Casey justify his reputation as a less than stalwart political debater. All he could think of immediately was “to repeal the tax cut for people making over $200,000 a year” — a tax increase for the rich. Russert responded that would bring in only $56 billion a year against a deficit of over $200 billion. However, its negative effect on the economy probably would produce much less than the estimated revenue. Not surprisingly, the recap of the debate playing on Casey’s website eliminated the entire dialogue about spending.

A key Casey adviser told me it was not necessary for his candidate to specify spending cuts. But his press spokesman, Larry Smar, sent this column a copy of Casey’s proposal for a federal commission to fight corporate welfare, which the candidate had mentioned in passing on “Meet the Press.” Smar did not list any actual program.

On the contrary, Casey is in the same niche with fellow Democrats in proposing large amounts of new spending for domestic social welfare programs. He has supported Kerry’s 2005 “Kids Come First Act” costing $100 billion over five years. Last Oct. 14, Casey advocated for nearly $300 million more in small business funding than President Bush proposed. On March 18, he called for $8 billion more in pre-kindergarten programs.

Although Casey did not spell it out in the televised debate, he also favors “paygo” — which would require finding revenue to compensate for any spending increase. Since neither party ever has made a serious effort to cut corporate welfare, that means higher taxes to cover higher spending (the reason why Santorum has opposed paygo in the Senate).

Santorum, third-ranking in his party’s Senate leadership as chairman of the Republican conference, shares overall GOP failure to control spending. During their debate, Casey did not specifically challenge Santorum’s record on spending. Similarly, while Santorum was characteristically aggressive in confronting Casey, he did not make a full-throated defense of the Bush tax cuts as essential for the economy. If a Democratic-controlled government were to walk down the tax increase road, would it ever face a spirited Republican defense?