In spring 2001, when President Bush championed his big tax cut, critics pointed out the illogic in his "we can have it all" promises. Bush told us the government could cut taxes and still run a surplus even as we were heading into the pit of a national recession. Economists shook their heads in disbelief; New York Times columnist Paul Krugman went so far as to call Bush's fuzzy math "lies."
Now, we face the consequences of Bush's deception, as Congress confronts the problem of having to raise the national debt ceiling -- a once-familiar exercise that had fallen into disuse in an era of budget surpluses.
The president is nothing if not a Texas straight-talker, say his supporters. Straight talk from Bush today would go something like this: "We cut taxes last year. Now the government's going into the red again. Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling. Either that or you can all send your rebate checks back to the IRS."
Funny -- Bush isn't saying anything of the sort. Instead, he's playing the "Don't you know there's a war on?" card again. Wednesday, he asked congressional leaders to raise the debt ceiling in a "professional way": "We're at war, we've got troops all around the world, we've got men and women whose lives are at risk. And now is not the time to be playing politics, or using the debt ceiling as an excuse for some individual's cause."
Bush can be forgiven for worrying that the debt ceiling issue might become a political football, since it was his own party that turned it into one in the 1990s. In 1995, congressional Republicans' refusal to pass a Clinton debt-ceiling request led to financial-market jitters and forced then-Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to do some fast work with the federal books to keep the government solvent.
Today there's probably no good reason for Congress not to pass Bush's request. The budget surplus was in some ways an accounting fiction anyway; forcing treasury secretaries to juggle the books was probably a bad idea even before Enron gave creative accounting a bad name; and the fact that Republicans did it to Clinton's gang doesn't justify Democrats' giving Bush's people the same business today.
Still, it's incontrovertible that the government has a lot less money now -- and will have less and less in the future -- thanks to Bush's ill-conceived tax cut. And it offends anyone who cares about honesty in government (a phrase that, during the Clinton era, was the rallying cry of impeachment-happy Republicans) to watch Bush continue to pin responsibility for his own fiscal mismanagement on the head of Osama bin Laden.
So if they had any guts, congressional Democrats would pass Bush's request -- then use the occasion to force a little truth-telling on the president.
"Sure, we'll raise the debt ceiling," they should say. "Our bill will also explain to the world just why we need to do this. The war on terrorism -- likely to cost $30 billion or so this year -- isn't what's breaking the federal budget. If the war's costs were the problem, there'd be no need to raise the debt ceiling by a whopping $750 billion. The tax cut is what's breaking the bank, Mr. President. Here, sign that!"
Would that be "professional" enough for Bush?