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GOP Candidates Go Supply-Side

A Commentary by Lawrence Kudlow

The New Hampshire primary may not have confirmed who's going to win the GOP nomination (or the Democratic nomination, for that matter). But it just may have told us where voting Republicans stand on the economy and supply-side policy.

Exit polls in New Hampshire reveal that the most important issue for Republican voters is the economy, at 31 percent, trailed by the war in Iraq, at 24 percent, illegal immigration, at 23 percent, and terrorism, at 18 percent.

Overall, 54 percent of New Hampshire voters said that reducing the budget deficit is the highest priority for the next president, while 44 percent believe in cutting taxes. And it's from here that an interesting split develops between Sen. John McCain and Gov. Mitt Romney. While McCain leads Romney 41 percent to 21 percent on the economy, McCain is the voters' deficit-cutter of choice, while Romney is the voters' tax-cutter of choice.

Of the deficit cutters, McCain boasted a 20 percent lead over Romney, 46 percent to 26 percent. Of the tax cutters, Romney led McCain by 10 points, 37 percent to 27 percent.

McCain, of course, voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, while Romney didn't support them as governor of Massachusetts. Noteworthy, however, is the fact that McCain favored the Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s, while Romney indicated a lack of support for the Reagan program during his unsuccessful 1994 Senate run against Ted Kennedy.

So McCain should be leading on the tax issue. But hard-line tax-cutting strategists like Cesar Conda and Vin Weber have been working to position Romney as a supply-side tax-cutter. According to the New Hampshire results, this is paying off.

But the key development is that supply-side policy is finally getting its due on the GOP campaign trail.

McCain's message of cutting federal spending and eliminating budget earmarks is hitting home. More and more voters seem to be worried about excess government spending, and McCain remains the favorite on this issue. But McCain is now talking more like a spending (SET ITAL) and (END ITAL) tax cutter, drawing the endorsement of time-tested supply-sider Jack Kemp and long-term deficit-spending foe Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator. Critically, McCain has pledged to make the Bush tax cuts permanent.

The Bushies, incidentally, are preparing a very weak-kneed temporary-tax-rebate plan that doesn't feature any big-bang supply-side cuts, such as a significantly lower corporate tax rate. I can't figure out why President Bush -- who declared himself a supply-sider last year -- is proposing a demand-side Democrat-type plan that simply mails checks without any tax-rate-changing incentive impact.

Meanwhile, Sen. McCain is saying, "I told you so." If the Bush tax cuts had been accompanied by stronger spending restraint, there would be plenty of budget room for large-scale across-the-board tax-rate cuts today.

Nevertheless, the McCain campaign is looking carefully at a possible corporate tax-cut proposal, as well as an elimination of the dividend tax as a means of ending the double tax on corporate profits. They're also expected to unveil some new economic proposals in Michigan that would include a strong free-trade component. As one McCain insider told me, "John is the strongest free trader in the country today, but never seems to get much credit for it."

The Romney campaign is also expected to roll out a tax-cut plan in Michigan. (Michigan, of course, is an overtaxed, overspent, over-unionized liberal paradise. It boasts a first-in-the-nation unemployment rate of 7.4 percent.) Rudy Giuliani, meanwhile, has unveiled a gonzo big-bang tax-cut plan that would get rid of the death tax and reduce capital-gains and dividend taxes to 10 percent (while indexing both to inflation). The former New York City mayor also would drop the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and expand tax-free savings accounts. In addition, Giuliani will investigate an optional income-tax plan with only three rates of 10 percent, 15 percent and 30 percent.

Even the pandering and populist Mike Huckabee deserves credit for sticking to his flawed, but still prominent, Fair Tax proposal. Aggressive tax-cutting strategies are now center stage in this hot primary season.

The only downside here is that these proposals are more than a year from seeing the legislative light of day, if they see that light at all. The Goldilocks economy of today, while consistently resilient, needs a tax-cut lift from Washington. It's too bad the White House is not reaching out to House Ways and Means Chair Charlie Rangel to slash the corporate tax rate. This could be paid for in static terms by abolishing corporate-tax loopholes, subsidies and various K-Street tax earmarks.

It's a missed opportunity. The economy is clearly top of the mind for the Republican base. And now, at long last, supply-side policy prescriptions are top of the mind for the GOP candidates.

If only the White House would get on board.


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