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Brand aid — fiscal responsibility

Creating a brand is hard work; destroying one is relatively easy. Piece by piece, Republicans have been dismantling the brand image they spent generations laboring to build.

Once the dominant party on national security — boasting a 35-point lead over Democrats — the GOP squandered that advantage in the sands of Iraq, the ports of Dubai and the floodwaters of Katrina. Now Republicans struggle to eke out a tie with Democrats on protecting the country from terrorism.

Republicans also used to see themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility, but as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently proclaimed, “The truth is, Democrats are the party of fiscal responsibility in Washington today.”

Hoyer notes that upon regaining the majority, one of the Democrats’ first acts was reinstating pay-go — requiring tax cuts or spending hikes to be offset by spending cuts or revenue increases elsewhere in the budget. More remarkably, pundits’ early predictions notwithstanding, Democrats have adhered strictly to this discipline. The Democratic House has passed 360 bills this year, and not one of them added even a penny to the federal deficit. It is a remarkable record from which Republicans should learn.

Disappointed and angry, Alan Greenspan chided the GOP for a whole series of votes and policy failures through which they forfeited any claim to the mantle of fiscal responsibility. Not one Republican saw fit to support the pay-go requirement when the House instituted it last January.

 Beyond sins of omission, though, the GOP has been a cancer on the federal budget, undermining America’s fiscal health by multiplying spending and deficits — turning a projected $5.6 trillion surplus into nearly $3 trillion in deficits. Ignore the excuses — it’s not just terrorism and war. As the Congressional Budget Office recently made clear, absent President Bush’s tax and entitlement policies, the budget would be balanced today.

Voters have noticed. President Bush receives lower ratings on handling the budget than on almost any other issue, while, in another stunning turnaround, Democrats lead the former party of fiscal responsibility by 24 points on handling the budget. Ronald Reagan would never recognize these big-deficit Republicans who have saddled every child born in America with a birth tax of over $29,000 — the share of the national debt they are born owing.

What the GOP has lacked in discipline, though, it is making up for in chutzpah. Having spent us into fiscal oblivion, Republicans are now itching for a fight on budget issues in a vain attempt to polish their now badly tarnished image.

Never mind that the difference between the Democrats and the administration is less than 1 percent of the federal budget. Never mind that over the last seven years Bush never vetoed even one bill that added to the deficit. Never mind that the Democrats’ budget is balanced.

As Hoyer made clear, it is not really a battle about budgets — it’s a fight about priorities. Republicans are demanding deep cuts in education, healthcare and public safety, while requesting $190 billion more for Iraq.

It’s yet another fight the GOP is going to lose with voters, who overwhelmingly support Democratic priorities. While 67 percent want Congress to spend less on Iraq than Bush is requesting, 72 percent support the Democrats’ position on the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, and similar numbers oppose cuts in education, healthcare and law enforcement.

Neither the president nor his party will regain fiscal footing by vetoing healthcare for kids or funding for education and medical research. They will, however, cement their reputation for being wildly out of sync with the people they purport to represent. Come to think of it, the president will leave one element of the GOP brand wholly intact.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.