Obama Plays Tsongas, Clinton Plays Clinton

In her embrace of a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax – an idea that virtually every credible economist

In her embrace of a temporary suspension of the federal gas tax – an idea that virtually every credible economist agrees is a gimmick – Hillary Clinton is making the same bet that delivered her husband to the Democratic nomination 16 years ago: that voters prefer promises of free candy to the truth.

In 1992, with the country mired in an economic slump, Bill Clinton made a middle-class tax cut the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. It was a promise that served two imperatives simultaneously, serving as bait to millions of working-class voters and as a symbolic break with the Democratic Party’s left-of-center orthodoxy that had been badly discredited by the previous three presidential elections.

Today, the economy is slumping and gas prices are pushing four dollars a gallon. So Hillary, whose campaign is built around the same working-class whites that her husband appealed to in the ’92 primaries (although he also enjoyed substantial black support that has eluded her), is calling for the summertime repeal of the 18.4 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax – to be paid for, she says, by a windfall-profits tax on oil companies.

From a policy standpoint, Hillary’s scheme is every bit as disingenuous as Bill’s. After emphatically sticking to his tax cut pledge throughout the primary and general-election campaigns – and verbally shaming those who dared to question it – Bill junked it about three weeks after taking office, telling Americans that he really had wanted to keep his word.

“I can’t,” he said in February 1993, “because the deficit has increased so much beyond my earlier estimates.”

Of course, the pledge had never been realistic, with the bills from the decade-long spending spree that marked the 1980s finally coming due. But Bill knew better than to admit that in a campaign.

Ditto for Hillary, whose scheme would – at best – save drivers about $30 on average over the summer, after which the federal tax would be restored. But even that is too optimistic, because there is general agreement that a dip in gas prices triggered by a tax holiday would cause a surge in demand. Prices would thus rise to their pre-holiday levels. The money from the increased prices, instead of going to Uncle Sam, would instead go overseas, to oil-producing countries.

And yet Hillary can draw inspiration from her husband’s example. The outcry from economists and editorial pages was just as loud in ’92. But among voters, Bill’s tax cut promise was political gold.

His chief opponent, Paul Tsongas, ridiculed him as a “pander bear” whose plan, if implemented, would saddle the next generation of Americans with unconscionable debt. Likewise, Barack Obama now accuses Hillary of the same kind of pandering and says her plan is not “a truthful response to the challenges that we face in America.”

In a ’92 ad, Tsongas argued against Bill’s plan this way: “Some candidates want to give you a tax cut of 97 cents a day. … But will that give you a job? They are $400 billion in debt and they want to give us a tax credit that they’re going to have to borrow from our children.”

Obama has been putting Hillary’s plan in the same terms. On Sunday’s Meet the Press,” he dismissed Hillary’s scheme as “a political response to a serious problem that we have neglected for decades” and noted that “the average driver would save 30 cents per day for a grand total of $28 – that’s assuming that the oil companies don’t step in and raise prices by the same amount that the tax has been reduced.”

In her response, Hillary is plainly channeling the Bill of ’92.

Confronted by Tsongas’ critiques, Bill would rail against editorial boards and other opinion leaders who celebrated Tsongas’ willingness to level with the public on a tax question.

“I’m tired of what is cold-blooded being passed off as courage. Give me a break,” he said at one point.

(Tsongas’ response to this is worth recalling: “Is Bill Clinton our new resident expert on courage?”)

In very much the same way, Hillary is now lumping all of the gas tax holiday critics under the “elitist” umbrella.

“We’ve got to get out of this mind-set where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans,” she said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.

It was obvious throughout the ’92 campaign that Paul Tsongas was right about the impracticality and naked disingenuousness of Bill Clinton’s plan – something Clinton himself confirmed when he took office. But it didn’t matter. The plan, and Tsongas’ opposition to it, exploited an intraparty divide between the working-class masses and upper-income elites. Guess where there were more votes?

Hillary Clinton has been benefiting from the same divide of late, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Indiana and North Carolina, for a variety of reasons, are trickier states for her to win. But win them she must, and so – just like her husband 16 years ago – she’s working overtime to take advantage of the divisions.

Bill was good enough to pull it off. Is she?

Obama Plays Tsongas, Clinton Plays Clinton