The Executive-Class President

by Paul Starr

The American Prospect magazine, April 2001


We are so used to a politics of blurred class interests in America that clarity is actually confusing. Throughout our history, the major parties have been economically heterogeneous, and the basic tenets of the American creed have denied any legitimacy to class as a basis of political action-except, that is, for measures in aid of the great, sprawling middle class that is ideally supposed to embrace nearly everyone. Democrats lean to labor but regularly nominate multimillionaires for office, and Republicans lean to business but appeal to the moral traditionalism of many working families. In recent years, despite the unions' continued effectiveness in mobilizing their members to vote Democratic, a majority of white working-class men have often voted Republican-as they did in the last presidential election.

This long history of muted class politics and working-class conservatism makes all the more striking the in-your-face program that President Bush is pressing Congress to adopt. The first priorities of the new administration have not been slightly biased in favor of the more affluent They have been tilted to an overwhelming degree in favor of the very rich. Defenders of the administration's income-tax proposals often say that the rich get the biggest cut because they pay the most in taxes. But while the top 1 percent would get 43 percent of the benefits of Bush's income-tax reductions, they pay only about half that proportion of federal taxes. The skewed distribution of benefits stems from Bush's deliberate choices about which tax to cut and how to cut it. Designing cuts targeted to low - and middle-income people-indeed, to more of the people who voted for him- would be easy, but he hasn't bothered.

The repeal of the estate tax is even more exclusively directed to the rich since it would benefit the heirs to none but the top 2 percent of estates-the only estates that now pay the tax. Defenders of repeal say it would help preserve family farms and small businesses, as if the Republicans were looking out for the little guy. But family-owned enterprises represent the majority of the assets in only 3 percent of estates that pay the tax, or six out of every 10,000 estates altogether.

The political priority of estate-tax repeal is itself testimony to the lopsided class interests now shaping national policy. Heirs and heiresses didn't used to be so popular.

Regressive fiscal measures are sometimes justifiable because of their effects on productivity and long-term growth, but the repeal of the estate tax isn't going to provide any general benefits of that kind. Indeed, some evidence suggests, not surprisingly, that large inheritances diminish the incentive to work-just the sort of thing conservatives are supposed to worry about. Recent decades have already seen a marked increase in wealth inequality, but that increase has been largely a by-product of the stock market (when it was rising). Repeal of the estate tax would be a breakthrough of sorts in the deliberate use of public policy not to spread wealth but to concentrate it.

The Republican regulatory agenda is equally one-sided. Congress repealed the Clinton-approved standards to reduce repetitive-stress work injuries so fast, and with so little discussion, that the public had no idea what was happening. The bankruptcy legislation sought by creditors is a done deal. On March 11, The Washington Post reported that "even as they savored these triumphs, business representatives looked ahead to passing a broader agenda that would pare back environmental and land use regulations, limit corporate liability for faulty products, rewrite rules protecting the privacy of patients' medical records, cut red tape blocking new oil refineries and pipelines, and open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling." Perhaps Ralph Nader should try explaining once again why Gore and Bush were no different.

The Republican agenda makes a mockery of the idea that new presidents need an electoral mandate to make major changes in policy. A few months ago, many analysts thought that Bush's loss of the popular vote would force him to moderate his proposals. But with control of both the presidency and Congress, Republicans have the first opportunity in a long time to do what they want in national policy. The tax windfall for the rich and regulatory breaks for business express the highest priorities and deepest impulses of a party no longer checked or balanced. To be sure, because of the close margin in the Senate, Bush may have to compromise a bit, sharply cutting back the estate tax instead of totally repealing it and reducing the top income-tax bracket from 39.6 percent to 35 percent instead of 33 percent. But even with such adjustments, the wealthy will be the big winners.

None of this causes any noticeable regret in our amiable M.B.A. president. Compassion does not distract him when his mind turns, as it occasionally must, to the core business of government. He works short hours, delegates authority over major decisions, and seems untroubled by any hard choices. In style as well as substance, he is a man of his class.

It would be nice to suppose that Bush's policies will meet repudiation in a future election. But once taxes are cut, it is nearly impossible to restore them during peacetime. Despite tremors on the stock market and uneasiness about the economy, Americans still are generally happy, prosperous, and politically inattentive. The next presidential election is years away, and memories are short. There may never be a better time to sack the Treasury. You don't miss a chance like this when you have it.

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