Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) — When it comes to Hillary Clinton, things are starting to feel like 2000 all over again.
During Clinton's first campaign, her opponents bashed her in a highly personal fashion for her ambition, her lefty allies and her hair. Now, the former First Lady is running for the Senate again — and the Democratic nomination in 2008.
Critics seem to be preparing to bash her in a highly personal fashion for her ambition, her allies, and — you get the picture. An ABC reporter in Italy this week even tried to get Laura Bush to take a shot at Hillary, but the current First Lady muddled out of it.
This is just as well. After all, the generalized Hillary hating of the 1990s marked a Republican low. A repeat would be embarrassing, and it would also be off the mark. In the interim, Clinton has had a job — U.S. senator and has won the right to be evaluated on her work representing New York. Besides, lawmakers often change in office.
In 2000, Clinton campaigned for targeted relief for the suffering old industrial communities upstate and support for tourism. Her package placed her admirably in the progressive Democratic tradition. But it didn't have much economic meaning.
Though Clinton talked about her desire to "encourage high-tech entrepreneurs to locate here," you got the feeling she wouldn't know a market if it came up and shook her hand in Elmira.
Even as she was campaigning, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was dropping. Clinton's first year in office saw the equities' crash and the national economy move into recession. New York state's finances are dependent on Wall Street's, so the downturn drained state coffers. Recessions do trickle down. Subsidized day care, tourism — the programs Clinton liked best — were in jeopardy.
At that time, President George W. Bush argued that general tax cuts — as opposed to targeted ones — would be good for the economy. He liked marginal rate cuts to the income tax, and he sought cuts for lower earners. He also fought for cuts in the capital-gains tax rate and taxes on dividends.
Clinton could have gone along. She didn't. Mechanically, she questioned the premise of the Bush tax cuts: "Will we meet the challenges of our time or will we squander this moment on a budget that puts politics first and people last?"
As E.J. McMahon, an economist at the Manhattan Institute, points out, the tax cuts did turn out to put "people first." Lower earning households saw great savings: a single parent of two children under age 17 saw an effective 84 percent cut in tax liability. In 2005, McMahon estimates, New Yorkers got to keep $14.6 billion in earnings that they would have had to pay in taxes without the changes in the federal law.
What's more, the Bush tax cuts were followed by both market and economic comebacks, just as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's capital-gains rate cut was followed by the boom of the late 1990s. Federal tax rate cuts did a lot to offset state and local tax increases. Using something called the State Tax Analysis Modeling Program, a software program that tries out different tax scenarios, McMahon estimates that without the federal cuts New York City would have lost jobs. Instead employment grew.
McMahon figures that for the six-year period of Clinton's first term New Yorkers will have kept $60 billion that they would have otherwise paid in taxes. Lots of people in New York don't get a Wall Street bonus. This tax cut was their bonus. Deprive them of it, and you limit the bonuses to Wall Street. You favor the rich in exactly the way that Clinton opposes.
Has She Learned?
But what matters more here is whether Clinton has learned much. New York state has had a dramatic fiscal experience in the past decade.
But Clinton has shown little recognition of that. Her agenda today is similar to her agenda of 2000: political impulses that don't add up economically. They include such things as FEMA relief for Katrina victims; a federal government program to help New Yorkers find health insurance; some $2.5 million for an environmental study of the Long Island shoreline from Fire Island to endangered Tiana Beach in Hampton Bays.
Clinton is co-sponsoring a bill mandating that insurers continue to offer customers the prescription drugs they request — bound to raise costs. She has joined Horizon Organic Producers, a milk cooperative, in cajoling New York dairymen to keep cows hormone free. Sweet and trivial.
But when it comes to serious questions of generating growth, she is still absent. It was said of George Bush the Father that he believed that "wealth is created when your aunt dies." You get the feeling that in her own way Hillary is as oblivious to how the economy works as the elder Bush.
As for joining Bush in making permanent the tax cuts that helped her state, she doesn't deliver. Indeed, she criticizes the president for "misplaced priorities." This comment displays a remarkable disregard for the realities of New York.
What a wonderful thing it would be if Republicans would skip their criticism of the Clinton persona. Instead, they could concentrate their spotlight on her economics. That's where change is needed. And that's where consequences need to be spelled out.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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