GOP finds tax cut plan not high voter priority

By Anne E. Kornblut, Globe Staff, 08/23/99

OCCOA, Ga. - Representative Nathan Deal arrived home this month like a traveling salesman, toting a pile of posters and a wooden easel to display his advertising pitch. The Georgia Republican was on a mission from the GOP: to peddle its current showpiece, a $792 billion tax cut bill that was ailing in the polls.

But what Deal found in his rural district was not quite the political climate predicted on Capitol Hill. To be sure, voters were fired up about an array of issues, from gun control to Social Security to military deployment around the world. And their eyes did seem to glaze over a bit at the words ''broad-based tax relief,'' just as Democrats had gleefully predicted they would.

Yet there were also clear worries about the tax code - probing questions about the capital gains tax and pension reform among the region's farmers and working middle class.

Many of those who showed up for a town meeting last week hosted by Deal seemed curious: Was there actually a budget surplus to spare, as Republicans claim? Or would a tax cut, as the Democrats say, eat into crucial federal programs?

''It is still an issue,'' said Maggie Downing, a conservative radio host in Clarkesville, who attended one outdoor gathering. ''I wouldn't say taxes are my number one priority. But I would call it up there in the top five.''

The battle over tax cuts has been one of definition, with each side struggling to frame the debate. Democrats have said the tax cuts might jeopardize other essentials including Social Security. Republicans have argued the projected budget surplus is generous enough to fund both a tax cut and necessary programs. And despite the conventional wisdom that public sentiment is tepid toward tax cuts, it appears the mood is governed by how the question is asked.

Asked to choose between a larger tax cut or increased spending to expand Medicare to include prescription drugs, 66 percent of the respondents to a Gallup Poll in early August said they would favor a smaller tax cut with an increase in spending on Medicare. Only 32 percent said they wanted a larger tax cut and smaller increases in Medicare spending.

But when asked only about the tax cut, 63 percent said President Clinton should sign into law the sweeping Republican tax bill passed by both the Senate and the House. Just 30 percent said they would approve of Clinton's vetoing the measure, which he has promised to do.

In other words, almost two out of three people would like a tax cut, in theory.

''There's no question about it,'' said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. ''The bottom line is, Americans want it all. In isolation, Americans like the idea of tax cuts, and essentially, they always have. If you ask, `Are your taxes too high?' they'll always say, `Yes.'''

Karlyn Bowman, an analyst at the Pew Center for the People and the Press, added: ''Since 1947, Gallup has asked the question 50 times. And Americans have always said their taxes are too high.''

That is the main reason House Republicans are taking to the streets, holding some 300 town hall meetings in their districts to promote the GOP tax plan. But for Deal, the issue of tax cuts has a political history dating to the beginning of his first term.

Elected as a Democrat in 1992, he was a fiscal conservative, voting in favor of the balanced budget amendment and in 1994 helping found ''the Fiscal Caucus,'' a group of 26 Democrats in the House. That same year, Deal helped promote a plan to cut spending, calling for a special congressional session on budget cuts. Even today, Deal prides himself on having voted like a Republican when he was a Democrat.

He switched parties in 1995, a move critics viewed as opportunistic since it happened as Republicans took control of the House and another Georgian, Newt Gingrich, became speaker. But Deal maintained his move was largely connected to the Democrats' opposition to tax cuts. Four years later, his constituents overwhelmingly believe him.

''We know where Nathan stands on this,'' said Mark Watson, 45, a capacity planner for Johnson & Johnson. ''We don't even need to ask.''

The district, a two-hour drive north of Atlanta, is largely conservative - 55 percent of Deal's constituents favored Bob Dole for president in 1996, and Deal beat his Democratic opponent by 32 percentage points one year after switching parties. But taxes are not necessarily a partisan issue here. Even among the region's lingering core of Southern Democrats, there are signs that a major tax cut could have appeal as long as it did not cut into funds designated for something else.

Fen Kolluck, a senior citizen who manages a swath of property she inherited, said she believes the environment should be the nation's top concern, alongside morality. ''If we had morality,'' she said, ''everything else would solve itself.''

But, Kolluck said, ''capital gains is high up on the list for me.''

''Every time I sell a piece of property, I pay tax,'' she said. ''Capital gains affects an awful lot of people.''

George Kaulbach, a retired Presbyterian minister, also said he was ''still up in the air'' on tax cuts. ''I would like to see some tax relief, but I don't want to do it so we disturb the balanced budget,'' said Kaulbach, 66.

Even those totally opposed to the Republican tax cut bill said it would not affect their votes. According to David B. Baglien, 73, a retired federal worker, ''People could care diddly about a tax cut.''

''Nathan's a good guy, though,'' he said. ''I've voted for him. I guess I will'' again in the future.

Deal, after a day of listening to nearly 100 voters earlier this week, said he was not entirely opposed to the idea of weighing the federal debt against a tax cut. Spending a budget surplus on new government programs would be unacceptable, he said. Spending it to pay down the national debt ''would be keeping with fiscal responsibility.''

He did not try to argue that taxes would become a hot-button campaign issue, or that they would sway voters next year. He hardly even tried to keep his constituents on the subject of taxes as he met with constituents throughout the day. Instead, he let them air concerns about the local rivers and logging, and the future of Medicare.

But he stayed planted in his position, carting his posters from meeting to meeting, aware that voters would relate to tax cuts on some level, whether he sold the GOP bill to them or not.