Will Democrats Dunk The Rich?

July 4 is Calvin Coolidge's birthday, and when Ronald Reagan was president a small party was often held in the White House to celebrate it. Now Coolidge's White House portrait has been replaced by Theodore Roosevelt's, suggesting symbolically that the free market is no longer the state religion. But if the new, tax-flexible George Bush senses that the ideological wind has shifted, he still seems unwilling to sound any of the populist themes that characterized his patrician predecessors. Teddy lambasted the "malefactors of great wealth"; cousin FDR said of Wall Street: "They hate me, and I welcome their hatred"; Bush, no traitor to his class, says that one of the major goals of his presidency is to lower the capital-gains tax on the rich.

As they say in his adopted state of Texas: that dog won't hunt (anymore). Despite his popularity, Bush now risks being pinned down in the cross-fire between conservatives who believe he's selling out on taxes, and progressives who want the well-to-do to pay more. The latter--tax hikes on the rich--may turn out to be more potent politically, as Kevin Phillips points out in "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House. $19.95). In fact, polls show that if voters aren't quite ready to soak the rich, they I feel a little dunk off the pier is in order. The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center found that 59 percent said the wealthy weren't taxed enough.

Can trickle-down economics really be going the way of earth shoes? Phillips certainly thinks so. His book is a relentless indictment of the greedy '80s, with enough anti-Reagan statistics to fill dozens of Jesse Jackson speeches. What's peculiar is that the author isn't Arthur Schlesinger or Mario Cuomo but a conservative Republican political analyst and former Nixon aide. It's hard to finish the book without being convinced that Reagan-era policies effectively mortgaged the future of the country for the short-term interests of the top 20 percent of Americans (household in--I comes of more than $56,000), especially the top 1 percent (more than $400,000).

Phillips isn't bad with a crystal ball. His 1969 book predicting a new GOP majority was wrong about the states and Congress, but he got the music right. This time his message will not comfort his fellow Republicans: "The inescapable turbulence of the 1990s is already closing in on the Bush White House." In comparing the 1980s to the Gilded Age and the Roaring '20s, he argues (like Schlesinger) that all such capitalist binges end in periods of progressivism and populism. Phillips makes light of the very issues that he once viewed as the underpinnings of a Republican resurgence. "Democrats, having run out of New Deal ideas more than 20 years ago, still don't grasp that Republicanism has been in the White House so long that its ideas--from constitutional amendments to protect the flag to further tax cuts- are themselves shrouded in cobwebs."

Politics of resentment: Even as Democrats begin, finally, to understand this reality (by defeating the flag amendment, for instance), they are still reluctant to sound pointed populist themes. Most Americans don't respond to the politics of resentment, the argument goes. This is valid up to a point--a positive message works better than crudely exploiting class differences. But the reluctance to heed public sentiment to tax the rich results more heavily from something else: the Democrats have become a money party, too. Those who would normally lead the charge are compromised by their own class interests, or by those of the backers who make their campaigns possible. Washington's rotted-out system of fund raising--in effect, legalized bribery--is still firmly rooted in the values of the 1980s.

By refusing to fulfill their historic role of reining in the money culture, the Democrass are helping to make the 1990s the Hangover Decade. They, too, become the heirs to Coolidge and even Herbert Hoover, lacking the will to take their pictures down.