ADVANTAGE BUSH

Mickey Kaus makes a sensible if boring point that the current budget debate is being over-played. Neither Bush’s predictions nor even the direst prognostications from outside see the future fiscal situation heading back to the kind of deficits of the 1980s and early 1990s. The most likely scenario is one in which the government is largely starved of much money for the next decade except to finance social security and Medicare (without much of a senior drug benefit). Mickey thinks this is good for Democrats because they can always rescind some of the tax cuts in future years to pay for their spending plans. It’s all going according to plan, Mickey reassures his Democratic readers. Really? Already, there’s mounting pressure not to raise taxes any further but to reduce them still more. Republicans are pushing for a capital gains tax reduction; Democrats want to see a reduction in the payroll tax. I’d pick the Democratic option myself, since I’d like to see a more even-handed tax cut than the one proposed by Bush. But whoever wins, doesn’t this mean a deep change in the debate? A year ago, we faced a Congress spending double the rate of inflation and a candidate Al Gore wanting only modest tax breaks for middle-class heterosexual families and a vast expansion of government spending. Today, we have a big tax cut, neutered spending plans, and perhaps a bigger tax cut coming soon. Yes, you can make the semantic point that Bush wants spending increases as well. But Bush doesn’t need to deliver on spending the way the Democrats do. And I’m still not convinced that any tax hikes in the near future – especially in sluggish economic times – can be anything but political poison. What Bush has done is to squash a small and rare window in fiscal history where a real expansion of government for more middle class entitlements was imaginable. Those of us who will paying taxes for decades to come will eventually be grateful we closed that window swiftly. And Bush’s sense of priorities in this respect seems retroactively exactly right.

EDWARDS WATCH: Interesting snippet from the somewhat unread Saturday edition of the New York Post, highlighted by one of my readers among Edwards fans. He’s clearly someone to watch closely. If Clinton is behind him, all the more so: “AL Gore didn’t want Bill Clinton’s help in last year’s presidential race, but other presidential wannabes – gearing up for the 2004 election – do. Citing Clinton’s phenomenal way of pulling in the cash, spies in D.C. say North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has been haranguing him for help with a presidential fund drive. “Edwards calls Clinton [in Harlem] at least once a week,” our source added. So far, Edwards’ tenacity has paid off: Clinton has been raving about Edwards in private to some of his biggest fundraisers. “These are private conversations,” said Julia Payne, Clinton’s rep.”

ROLLING OR STONED?: Diverting piece in the Village Voice echoing some of my beliefs about the relative harmlessness of Ecstasy compared to many other legal, prescription drugs. It seems there is much scientific debate about how harmful ecstasy is over the long term and how the costs weigh against benefits in only occasional use. But finding some sane resolution to this debate – which would require studying Ecstasy’s beneficial and therapeutic effects as well as its dangers – cannot be fully conducted until the current loopy official prohibition of the drug is lifted. So we’ll never know, and the prohibitionist mentality, with all its baleful effects on our criminal justice system, continues. And no leader in either party is prepared to open up this debate.

LETTERS: My double-standard with Garry Trudeau and Roger Ebert; gay cookouts, etc.

WHAT A DRAG: I dropped by the kind of drag show in Provincetown last Friday night I would never usually attend: a drag show for straight people. It was called “Guys As Dolls,” and featured Barbra and Marilyn look-a-likes and brought lots of appreciative oohs and aahs from the largely hetero crowd. The gay guys in audience, I’d say, found it tedious (although one of the performers was pretty great as Susan Lucci in her final Emmy acceptance speech). In fact, there are clearly two kinds of drag shows now around: celebrity imitators for straights and a much different form of theater for gays. Drag for gays these days actually eschews trying to pass off as women, instead caricaturing the way in which our culture promotes and rewards crass diva-dom. The uglier and crasser the impersonation the funnier. In many, there’s a whiff of misogyny as well, but it’s saved by equal doses of sympathy for the way in which straight women still contort themselves for the pleasure and amusement of straight men. But my point is that this newish kind of drag is ironic, amused, detached, self-mocking. It’s post-drag, if you will. And what this goes to show is that drag is changing as the role of gays changes. Gay men do not need to pretend to be women any more to win attention; we can merely play at being men playing at being women. Within a couple of decades, I think, even this may dissipate some, as the whole conflation of homosexuality with gender-transgression fades, and as gay men and lesbians reclaim more fully their respective genders. Drag may eventually disappear altogether – which will be a shame in one respect, since it’s a glorious and wonderful tradition. But I won’t be sad to see the days pass when gay men had to pass as effeminate or almost indistinguishable from women to gain a foothold of recognition or acceptance. If drag collapses because gay freedom thrives, then it will be a worthwhile trade-off.