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Sen. Lott, thank you for the gridlock

Columnists for the New York Times are not allowed to endorse politicians, but I'm going to break that rule just once and come out and say it: I'm a Trent Lott man. Really.

I'm for Sen. Lott because he appears intent on holding to the extreme Republican position _ that we pass an across-the-board tax cut that gives away virtually the entire projected budget surplus and that there be no compromise with the more realistic Clinton proposal. I'm for Lott because his extremism guarantees a Clinton veto of the whole tax bill, and, given the idiotic debate on this issue, that is the best outcome we could have right now. Because with no new tax bill, just gridlock, nothing changes. Gridlock when you're running a deficit is terrible. But gridlock when you're running a surplus is a blessing. It means the surplus just keeps piling up and goes to paying down the national debt. That reduces government borrowing and lowers interest rates, which means lower mortgage, student loan and credit card payments for everyone _ the best tax cut of all.

So I say, "Go, Trent, go!" Take the Republicans right over the waterfalls, ensure the Clinton veto, and then we can wait for a saner Republican leadership, knowing that in the meantime the national debt is being repaid. It's too bad it has to come to this, but there's no other option at a time when the GOP has simply become the Dumb Old Party _ the DOP _ which is so lost and divided it can only agree on one big dumb idea _ an irresponsible tax cut to feed consumption in a white-hot economy.

What is missing is any Republican strategic concept about where America is today and what sorts of investments will be required for American workers, society and armed forces to thrive in an increasingly globalized world. Committing to long-term tax reduction schemes _ without any strategic vision _ is like going to war not only without an exit strategy but without even an entry strategy.

Sen. William Roth Jr., the Republican author of the $792-billion tax giveaway, said it was "a giant step forward to give the American people a tax break." How about a giant step to prepare the American people for the next century? A real domestic strategy, Republican or Democratic, would start with an honest plan for tackling the twin debts of the 1980s _ the huge deficits run up by the Reagan administration and the Democratic Congress in those days, plus the unfunded liabilities of the future in both Social Security and Medicare. Really eliminating these twin debts would put America on a fiscal footing that would not only make us the envy of the world but ensure our dominance well into the future.

What the Republican leadership doesn't understand is that in this age of globalization you not only need to get the size of your government down, you also have to get the quality of your government and workers up. You don't win by mindlessly shrinking government alone. And that's why a domestic strategic vision must include investment in the quality of government _ whether it is improving the FAA, police, schools or the FBI _ and the quality of workers.

Investments in innovation, human capital and new technologies are what will drive our growth in the future, much more than plant and equipment. And a public policy focused on promoting the former, with tax incentives, not the latter, with huge capital gains cuts, is critical.

"In this new economy a worker's security will not come from a union card or the promise of lifetime employment at a big company," notes Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute. "It will come from the quality of the tools you carry around in your own head. We need a tax policy that will encourage lifetime learning, so every worker can master the skills for global competition."

We also need investment in families and communities, through family-friendly tax policies, because families and communities are the best safety nets for sustaining people in today's high-pressure labor markets.

I don't agree with the whole Clinton budget (I'd have no tax cut), but at least it is based on a realistic vision of the world we are heading into. I wish there were a real Republican alternative. The country would benefit from that debate. Instead, what we have now is one party saying, "The world is new, and this is the only way to tackle it," and the other saying, "The world is flat, and there's nothing new to be done."

Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.

New York Times News Service

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