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George W. Bush, we’ve been told, is a compassionate conservative. The trouble is, his budget isn’t. Well, it’s compassionate in many respects: It throws an awful lot of money at an awful lot of problems. But it sure isn’t conservative — at least in the sense of fiscally conservative. What it does is simply throw away the fiscal discipline of the Clinton-Gingrich years in order to expand government and cut taxes at the same time. Count me as a skeptic.
There are good reasons to run a deficit now, of course. We are still at risk of actual deflation. We have a jobless recovery. And extra military spending and homeland defense are, to my mind, no-brainers, given the current terrorist threat. But Bush doesn’t simply allow for a temporary deficit, with a goal of longer-term balance. He has returned to the Reagan era of permanent deficits and a growing national debt. Worse than this, he won’t admit it.
Here’s my nomination for an idiocy of the week. It’s from the helpful “fact sheet” put out by the White House to justify its profligacy. The short paragraph, verbatim:
“The budget would be in double digit deficit if had there never been a tax cut in 2001. The budget returned to deficit because of war, recession and emergencies associated with the terrorist attacks of September 11th.”
First off, of course, this is illiterate. Don’t they have a copy editor anywhere? Second, as Timothy Noah at Slate has pointed out, this unlikely assertion is actually denied in the Historical Tables appendix at the end of the report, which concedes that the tax cut clearly contributed to the deficit. After all, that’s what tax cuts do. They reduce revenue. They may spur some growth, but no one has yet shown that the growth they create outweighs the revenue losses they create. Sorry, but I’m a fiscal conservative. Not a supply-side fundamentalist.
Third, if war is a major reason for our current and future deficits, why is the potential cost of our looming war not even mentioned in the budget? This is not an oversight. Ignoring the biggest single new expenditure of the next several years is simply irresponsible bookkeeping at best and downright deception at worst.
But what really bugs me is that the president doesn’t seem to give a damn. He could say: Look, we’re running deficits because I need to pay for a major war and tax cuts will help get us out of a recession. Instead, he told us last year that the deficits would be temporary and this year that, er, well, he didn’t say anything much about them in the State of the Union address, did he? Or he could say: OK, I know I’ve turned the spigot on for the last couple of years, but I’m going to be a hard-ass from now on. But on what grounds do we believe him? If he’s not even including the cost of war and reconstruction in Iraq, what credibility does he have in controlling domestic discretionary spending?
Then again, he might say: I’m deliberately creating new deficits because they’re the only long-term way to keep domestic spending under control. But since he has been spending our tax money more freely than anyone else since Reagan, that would come off as a little specious, wouldn’t it? His final option is to say: I’m a big government conservative. I want to spend gobs of money on the military and defense, cut taxes, and splurge on social discretionary spending to prove my compassionate credentials. Deficits don’t matter. Governments know better how to spend money than individuals do. That would be the honest message. And it might even be a winning one. So why the flimflam?
Maybe because actual conservatives like me might wail. Well, sorry to disappoint you, Mr. President, but I’m going to wail anyway.
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Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own andrewsullivan.com Web site.More Andrew Sullivan.