This is the transcript of a commentary first broadcast on National Public Radio.
President Bush has an opportunity to turn one of his worst decisions into an example of real leadership.
The IRS will soon begin mailing out rebates as part of the big "retroactive tax cut." About 98 million Americans will get checks of up to $300 (individuals) or $600 (for families).
As soon as the checks hit the mailboxes, President Bush should ask those 98 million people to give away a nice chunk of their money.
Why? The president staked his claim to being a compassionate conservative in large part on his commitment to mobilize and assist the "armies of compassion." His plan to help religious groups has gotten the most attention, but it was Mr. Bush's proposal to encourage charitable giving that could have accomplished much more.
In his tax plan, he proposed making it possible for Americans who don't itemize--70% of taxpayers--to claim a charitable deduction. This would have cost the Treasury an estimated $20 billion over five years. It was a meaty plan. Analysis by the group Independent Sector predicted it would lead to an $80 billion increase in charitable giving.
It was generous but non-bureaucratic, genuinely compassionate and conservative.
Then came the moment of decision. During the congressional negotiations over the tax bill, the White House had to decide what to fight for. They decided to protest the estate tax repeal and throw overboard the charitable deduction plan.
Here's how he can make up for this blunder. He should launch a national campaign to have Americans give 10% of their rebate check to charity.
If every household tithed, the result would be roughly an extra $3 billion to charity this year.
In a way, it would be a purer form of charity. The charitable deduction, after all, is a bit of a bribe. You give to charity and you get a kickback, a financial incentive to do good.
A tithing campaign would be more patriotic--this is something you do because it makes the country stronger and kinder, not because you're paid to.
After having sold his tax cut with an appeal to our self-interest--"it's your money," Bush told us repeatedly--he could now call upon Americans' nobler instincts. He should announce that he would be giving all of his own rebate to the poor and urge that others follow the dictates of many faiths and give a portion directly to charity.
Such a campaign would have another advantage. It would insert into the debate a religious concept that unites instead of divides. Every major faith has at least a professed commitment to charity, and tithing is urged repeatedly in the Bible.
Bush is a religious man, shaped by faith in Jesus Christ. Now's the time, in the words of the popular saying, for Bush to think about what Jesus would do with HIS tax cut and, more important, what he would do if he were speaking to those who had just gotten refund checks in the mail.