Beating the Bush

Take one tax rebate, a Houston man advises, and apply liberally

Tony Adams espouses -- though he doesn't call it this -- the paper-clip theory: A bend to the right requires a compensating overbend to the left, simply to get the clip back to its original, functional shape. Accept for the sake of argument that paper clip = American politics and George W. Bush = big fat right- shoving thumb, and Tony Adams is feeling out of whack.

Adams is 35, boyish, clean-cut and white. He's a Web designer by trade, engaged to be married next year. He wears unobtrusive but stylish Giorgio Armani lens frames and khaki pants and a neat blue button-down shirt tucked in. He betrays not a whiff of the traditional cartoon liberal. It's not until he talks that you learn what side he thinks he's on: He'll cop to being left of center, given the climate, but in his heart of hearts, he's right down the middle of the road. He didn't vote for Bush or Gore; he considers both bought and paid for. He didn't vote for Nader either. Too liberal. He wished he could have checked a box marked "none of the above." (He did vote in congressional elections.)

His dad's an English professor and his mom worked for a local water authority, and he graduated from Clear Lake High School in 1984, in an era when the Reagan administration -- alongside less salutary accomplishments -- was busily politicizing high school kids against a Republican agenda that hit all the wrong notes. He was always politically aware, but he never did anything that might be called activist. He drives a nice BMW and says "my politics aren't really defined by my income" and reads Investor's Business Daily, the trademarked motto of which is "Choose Success."

"I just think we need to come back closer to center than Bush is taking us," Adams says. He figures the election provided neither candidate with anything resembling a mandate, and yet he's seeing aggressive conservative policy effected. He doesn't need his tax rebate, and he doesn't particularly want it. It feels a little like blood money.

He had an idea -- give the money to the left -- about the time others had the same idea, but he was already a skilled Web designer, so he's the one who went ahead and did it. He floated the Web site TaxRebatePledge.org. Investing about $500, mostly on an ISP and some press releases, Adams has worked about 80 hours on the site since the June 5 launch.

That same day, Salon.com mentioned the site and reported that four "concerned" Americans had so far sent Adams pledges of $1,300 to help nonprofits targeted by the Bush administration. Two days later the pledge total was $35,000. By the time syndicated Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman called the Bush rebate "hush money" and recommended Adams's Web site, more than $100,000 had been pledged.

Adams sent a press release to Investor's Daily News, which, incredibly, noticed. On June 18, beneath sarcastic conservative editorials on Bush's triumphant "snookering the sophisticates" tour of Europe and one titled "Protesters: Who are those guys?" Tony Adams's Web site was pilloried as "proof that no one ever goes broke making ludicrous appeals to unhinged Americans…" National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, in a rambling column called "Rebates for Morons," dismissed Adams's site (while writing an entire column about it) as stupid. Goldberg mocked that while he was going to spend his own rebate on "beef jerky, dog toys, and whatever else suits my fancy…others may want to donate it to some cause or organization that does good as they see it -- the Catholic Church, the United Way, Citizens United to Protect Basset-Hound Habitat…whatever."

For all the angry reaction, all Adams really did was float an idea: If you can do without your tax refund -- and, obviously, if you're interested in providing something of a left-wise counterweight to the dominant right-tilt of contemporary issue-politics -- why not consider pledging that money to some organization designed to further your agenda? If we're going to vote with dollars, let's vote with dollars.

TaxRebate Pledge.org includes a list of dozens of left-ish and less-than- radical groups, from Planned Parenthood to the Sierra Club to Oprah's Angel Network. You can choose to pledge up to the maximum rebate of $600 for couples. Adams adds it to the tally only after an e-mail confirmation of the pledge. There's no need to even specify where the donation goes. At press time the total was $217,000 from 651 pledges.

No money goes through the Web site. It's an on-line promise ring, flimsier than an oath at closing time. Adams will e-mail reminders to those signed on, but still, every single one could fail to follow through, and Adams would never even know.

It's, literally, nothing more than an idea.

And yet Investor's Business Daily felt compelled to offer harrumphing reassurances that "Most Americans don't typically turn against leaders who show them respect and consideration. Bush's tax rebate isn't likely to put too many in the mood to give cash to his enemies."

"Hilarious," Adams says.

The whole idea sounds pretty hysterical to Gary Polland, chairman of Harris County's Republican Party. He laughs, anyway.

"Well, we certainly believe that people can spend their tax rebate any way they want, though I think a better idea than opposing President Bush's common-sense agenda would be to save it, or pay down your debt, as opposed to give it to some left-wing organization that's on some left-wing crusade against the president."

Did he mention left-wing?

"If they've raised 625 people with extensive publicity, that means the American people are not interested in giving their tax rebate to a left- wing organization."

Perhaps they'd want to donate to a faith-based charity -- "I think that's wonderful" -- or maybe Club For Growth, a D.C.-based conservative political action committee, Polland says. He explains that the PAC solicited tax rebates with the promise that it would "make sure it's spent properly to defend the president and his record."

Peter Durkin, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Houston and Southeast Texas, is more interested in defenses against the president and his record, and TaxRebatePledge.org is a welcome idea to him. With an $11 million budget and a clientele that's 95 percent low- income women, Planned Parenthood is anticipating a pinch Durkin remembers from the Reagan-Bush years. There hasn't been an increase in subsidized family-planning funds in a decade, and Governor Rick Perry recently vetoed Medicaid legislation that would have expanded health insurance for low-income women.

"These are not fun times," Durkin says. Bush's ban on U.S. funds for foreign health organizations who provide abortions or related services "is the first shot out of the cannon," he says. Planned Parenthood also feels threatened by anti-choice Bush judicial appointees and likely budget cuts for low-income clients.

If Adams would link the Houston chapter of Planned Parenthood beside the national organization on his site, Durkin says, "he'd have a friend for life."

Adams will probably do that. Hell, he listed Oprah. People e-mail him suggestions for worthwhile organizations, and he adds most of them to the list. He doesn't link to political parties. He probably wouldn't link to the National Rifle Association. He's looking for "a hard knock" back to the left to balance the seesaw.

But just this one punch, then he's gone. Rebate checks should start bumping through the mails in late July. When that's done, Adams will send out his reminders, close down the site and go back to his daily routine. He's pledged his own $300 but hasn't decided where it's going yet. This isn't his mission. It's just an idea.

Besides, there really isn't any way to measure the idea's success as an economic proposition. And there's no opportunity for Adams to make a penny off it. "I feel," he says, "more American now than I ever have."

But as long as it's just an idea, Adams does have a dream goal. It would require over 100,000 pledges of $300 apiece, out of a total tax rebate of $38 billion to 91 million Americans.

The dream is to hit $33 million -- matching the estimate of the golden parachute that floated Dick Cheney from the Halliburton Company into the vice presidency.

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