It’s the Economy Again, Stupid

Will the religious right dominate the Washington agenda as a Republican president, backed by a mostly GOP Congress, takes the reins of government?

That scenario is on the minds of many Jewish leaders who worry that abortion, school prayer, vouchers and other issues championed by Christian conservatives will be the engine behind the 107th Congress.

Conservatives on Capitol Hill, led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have reinforced their fears by promising to press their partisan advantage to advance a wide range of conservative domestic issues.

Jewish leaders would do better to focus on Bill Clinton’s memorable 1992 campaign theme: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the bitter end to this year’s presidential election, the top issues of groups such as the Christian Coalition may not be front and center as the new Congress and administration try to find a way to govern amid political gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Instead, the administration is likely to focus at first on the economic changes it would like to implement — changes that are likely to garner bipartisan support but which could prove troublesome for Jewish organizations.

The social agenda of the religious right will enjoy only limited success when the new Congress gets to work.

School prayer amendments will be dead on arrival. School voucher plans may do better, thanks to support from some Democrats. Several voucher demonstration projects were passed in recent years but vetoed by President Bill Clinton; Bush supports vouchers, so the veto threat will disappear.

Some abortion restrictions may move through, but the evenly divided Senate will remain a major obstacle to any sweeping changes.

But the Bush administration can wreak considerable havoc on abortion rights through executive order. And the wild card remains the Supreme Court; a vacancy or two during the Bush administration would likely tip the balance on the Court on abortion.

New gun control legislation is unlikely, but so is any major pullback from laws already on the books; again, the Senate will be the major stumbling block.

Gary Bauer, the former leader of the Family Research Council whose bid for the Republican nomination was spurned by GOP primary voters, urged Bush this week not to give an inch on the conservative domestic agenda.

Bush is hearing much the same message from Republican leaders on the Hill. And his soon-to-be vice president, Richard Cheney, promised over the weekend that their administration will not abandon the interests of its core supporters.

But Bush is also being told that if he focuses on a narrow conservative agenda, the result will be bitter stalemate — not a political plus for a president whose margin of victory was thin to nonexistent.

If he does try to govern from the center, GOP moderates say, he will do better with some of his core economic issues.

But some of those issues could have much more immediate consequences for the Jewish community than the nexus of social issues pushed by the Christian right.

Bush’s campaign platform called for a $1.3 trillion tax cut, a demand Cheney recently called nonnegotiable. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are divided; some support the huge, 10-year cut, others want to press for a series of smaller tax cuts.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be looking for high-profile actions they can take that have a chance of bipartisan support, and tax cuts, supported by a significant number of Democrats, could top the list.

Most Jewish groups do not have official positions on the issue. At the same time, many Jewish leaders privately fear that anything more than token cuts could be a time bomb tossed into the middle of the nation’s social safety net.

Today, the federal treasury is flush, thanks to the record economic boom and the run-up in the stock market.

But the surplus will evaporate with astonishing speed if the economy skids.

Tax cuts in the coming year, many worry, will lead to a ballooning of the budget deficit when the economy slows. And that, in turn, could produce intense pressure to cut discretionary spending programs.

The programs most at risk are precisely those that the Jewish community successfully provides across the country, using government dollars along with philanthropic money: health and housing programs for the elderly, services for children and teens, vocational services, services for immigrants.

Big cuts could also jeopardize important foreign policy priorities of the Jewish community, starting with foreign aid to Israel.

Bush’s economic thinkers say the cuts will spur the economy and preserve the boom. But it’s a gamble; if they’re wrong, the government will quickly face a new deficit crisis and ferocious new pressure to cut vulnerable programs.

That, and not the religious right “values” agenda, is where the real action is likely to be for Jewish groups in 2001.