Bush and his troops attack McCain's tax plan on many fronts

By Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 1/20/1999

ANCHESTER, N.H. - First, he sent two top advisers to crash a McCain campaign press conference. Then, he dispatched two economic advisers to McCain 2000 headquarters in Virginia. And finally, he had six Arizona state senators and the Massachusetts governor assail McCain for ''raising taxes.''

Using every conceivable weapon, Texas Governor George W. Bush furiously tried yesterday to discredit John McCain's tax plan as he fights an uphill battle in the first-in-the-nation primary state.

For its part, the McCain campaign tried both to fight back and change the subject, hoping that at least one approach would undercut the bruising onslaught.

''Governor Bush's statements in the last 48 hours and those of his campaign staff are just flat-out false,'' said Warren Rudman, the former New Hampshire senator who is McCain's national co-chairman. Rudman also called Bush's statements ''absolutely wrong,'' ''ludicrous,'' and ''a distortion'' during a press confernce attended by Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, and Joel Maiola, Bush's New Hampshire director.

''It's not surprising to me that we have this kind of panic involved,'' said Rudman. ''My experience in this state is that desperate men do desperate things.''

At issue is one line in McCain's tax plan about employer-provided fringe benefits. The Bush campaign says it means one thing, and the McCain campaign says it means something else entirely. In many ways, the Republican tax debate is beginning to sound a lot like the ongoing ''does too, does not'' argument over health care being conducted by Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

According to Bush, McCain would raise taxes on employers by $40 billion for providing workers with life insurance, tuition, parking, transit passes and meals. In New York, McCain said yesterday he would deprive corporations from getting a tax deduction for club memberships and free parking, but not for health premiums or tuition assistance. By the end of the day, the McCain campaign put the increased cost to employers at about $4 billion.

''There's a certain silliness to the debate that's going on within the Republican ranks right now,'' said Clint Stretch, the director of tax policy for Deloitte & Touche. ''Looking at all these details is causing people to lose focus on what's really important.''

What's important, Stretch said, is that Bush proposes a big tax cut, while McCain's is more modest.

McCain proposes cutting taxes by $237 billion over five years. He says it is irresponsible to cut taxes further until the financial future of Social Security and Medicare is assured.

Bush, on the other hand, would give a five-year, $483 billion tax cut. He says the only way to ensure that the federal government does not spend any budget surplus is to refund most of the money to taxpayers.

According to an analysis by Stretch, Bush would apply his tax cut to people in the very upper incomes, while McCain's would phase it out as income rose. For example, a couple with two children who earn $500,000 a year would receive a $19,500 tax cut from Bush, but only a $3,500 tax cut from McCain.

If that same family earned $110,000 annually, Bush would give them a $4,200 tax cut, compared with $4,500 from McCain.

While many tax analysts said yesterday that Bush's interpretation of McCain's plan is not out of bounds, they described his attacks as nitpicking.

''We're in a primary campaign and each participant is looking for chinks in the armor of his opponent and wants to play up to certain groups of the voters,'' said Henry J. Aaron, a senior fellow in the economic studies program at the Brookings Institution, who has reviewed both plans.

Kenneth Kies, the co-managing partner of PriceWaterhouseCoopers' Washington tax practice, said there is only one logical way to interpret McCain's plan: ''They are proposing to tax employees on various nonretirement fringe benefits they receive from their employer.''

Meanwhile, Bush's two economic advisers, Lawrence Lindsey and Representative Rob Portman of Ohio, showed up unannounced at the McCain campaign headquarters in Alexandria, Va., yesterday to discuss the tax disagreement. With television cameras all around, McCain officials had the two sit down in front of signs saying ''McCain saves Social Security,'' and posters of McCain as a young naval aviator.

The Bush campaign also issued a press release yesterday with half a dozen Arizona state senators denouncing McCain's tax plan. And Governor Paul Cellucci made himself available to reporters to criticize the McCain plan.

In an attempt to change the subject from the McCain tax plan to the Bush tax plan, McCain accused Bush of penalizing stay-at-home parents. In a press release, McCain alleges that under Bush's plan a married couple with one stay-at-home parent would pay $252 more in taxes than a couple where both work.

''Governor Bush has not one penny for Social Security, not one penny for Medicare and not one penny to pay down the debt,'' McCain said. ''That's what this debate is really all about.''

But Bush would not be dissuaded.

''I think if the man puts out a plan like he has done, in writing, that is worthy of dicussion,'' Bush said at a news conference in Plaistow where he read aloud from McCain's tax plan. ''If in fact he's changed his plan, I look forward to seeing what the change is for the third or fourth time.''

Yvonne Abraham, Anne E. Kornblut, Ann Scales and Frank Phillips of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.