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The view of Senator Voinovich

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As a Deficit Hawk, Voinovich

Inherits Ross Perot's Mantle

Maybe those over-the-top Club for Growth ads comparing Ohio Sen. George Voinovich to French President Jacques Chirac aren't totally off the mark. There is this similarity between the two men: Both have seen their stature rise as a result of heavy-handedness by the Bush administration.

For months, Mr. Voinovich tried to get people to pay attention to his Concord Coalition charts and graphs, which show the federal budget approaching a fiscal train wreck in the not-too-distant future. But few did.

That was before the Ohio Republican came under a double-pronged attack for his refusal to support a tax cut bigger than $350 billion. First, the Club for Growth unleashed its advertisements, which had the subtlety of an Abrams tank, calling into question Mr. Voinovich's patriotism. Then President Bush compounded the error, heading to the senator's home state this past Thursday to push for the $550 billion figure he wants as a minimum tax cut.

Bad move, Mr. President. The embattled senator, who had been avoiding the news media for weeks, accepted a berth on Sunday's "Meet the Press," where he gave a bravura performance and surrounded his feet with even more cement. Moderator Tim Russert's final question: "You're sticking to your guns. It's $350 billion in tax cuts and not a cent more?"

"You got it," the senator replied. "And anybody that knows George Voinovich knows that when I say something, I mean it."

Mr. Bush's advisers say voters like the president's unwavering moral certitude, whether the issue is war in Iraq or tax cuts at home. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander: Ohio voters like Mr. Voinovich's uncompromising style, too. And now that they have gotten a taste of it, voters nationwide may like it as well.

Last week, Republican insiders were muttering that Mr. Voinovich seemed content to be a one-term senator. This week, some may instead speculate about him as a future presidential contender. The Bush administration's misguided trip to Ohio has put a spotlight on the man who saved Cleveland and went on to become one of the most popular governors in the state's history. Now Mr. Voinovich is set to inherit the deficit-hawk mantle that rocketed Ross Perot to national prominence a decade ago.

Anyone who thinks the health of a $10 trillion economy hangs on the difference between $550 billion and $350 billion of tax cuts over 10 years is, of course, fooling himself. But the president is making an open-ended argument for his stance. "Some in Congress say the plan is too big," Mr. Bush said in Ohio last week. "Well, it seems like to me they might have some explaining to do. If they agree that tax relief creates jobs, then why are they for a little, bitty tax-relief package?"

By that logic, though, there is no reason to stop at $550 billion -- or even $725 billion, Mr. Bush's original proposal. If tax cuts create jobs, why not eliminate taxes altogether? At some point, says the notoriously stingy Mr. Voinovich, you have to draw a line.

Mr. Voinovich's sudden prominence comes as Democrats are abandoning the last vestiges of their temporary and always-tenuous attachment to fiscal prudence. Former House Speaker Richard Gephardt's $200 billion-a-year health-care plan is the clearest sign of that. Mr. Gephardt may not be the Democratic standard-bearer in 2004, but his generous plan could well become the standard. That means voters in November 2004 could have a choice between a president who has advocated about $2 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years, and a Democrat who would spend the same $2 trillion for a vast expansion of government health-care coverage.

Surely there is room for someone like Mr. Voinovich to ask: "What $2 trillion?"

The Ohio senator isn't in favor of balancing the budget now, in the face of a weak economy, or even anytime soon. He is simply pointing out what every serious budget analyst knows to be true: The retirement of the baby boomers is rapidly approaching, and piling up ever more debt in advance of that near-certain fiscal cataclysm probably isn't a great idea. Moreover, the easy argument that tax cuts will spur growth and offset their cost has gotten a little harder now that the president's hand-picked congressional budget director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, has cast doubts on it with his "dynamic scoring" report.

So the battle is on between two men who show no signs of budging. Senate tax writers are scrambling to find "offsets" -- tax increases, spending cuts and accounting gimmicks -- that will let them move the gross tax cut a little closer to the president's number without taking the net tax cut higher than $350 billion.

If Mr. Bush ever had any hope of persuading Mr. Voinovich to accept a higher number, he now must realize that hope is gone. Like the president, the senator knows that Americans appreciate politicians with the courage of their convictions.

Write to Alan Murray at alan.murray@wsj.com

Updated April 29, 2003

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