Losing the "trifecta"

The president tries to defend his deficit spending through a little campaign revisionism.

Published June 18, 2002 10:13PM (EDT)

It takes a brazen politician to make up a story that can be proven false and then to keep lying about it after being busted repeatedly. A case in point is President Bush's repetition last week of a story about a fictitious Chicago campaign statement, just days after his budget director was called on it by "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert.

As the New Republic's Jonathan Chait first reported and Spinsanity, among others, also covered, Bush's claim that during a 2000 Chicago campaign stop he listed three exceptions under which he would run deficits -- war, national emergency or recession -- is blatantly false. No one has found any evidence that Bush made such a statement, and the White House has pointedly failed to provide any.

What makes this revisionist history so egregious is that Bush had actually promised that he would protect the Social Security surplus and not support deficit spending. But, as Chait recounts, when federal revenue projections declined in August 2001, Bush and his aides began listing exceptions the president had "always" supported that justified dipping into the Social Security surplus. Then, in October, Bush began using the mythical Chicago statement to defend himself against criticism of the overall budget deficits that seemed imminent.

In February, Bush submitted a budget to Congress that accepted deficit spending. And with the likelihood that red ink will persist until at least 2005, the president has honed the Chicago story into his rather unfortunate "trifecta" joke, which is designed to defuse the issue politically. Here's what he said in Iowa on June 7, for example:

"I remember -- I remember campaigning in Chicago, and one of the reporters said, Would you ever deficit spend? I said only -- only in times of war, in times of economic insecurity as a result of a recession, or in times of national emergency. Never did I dream we'd have a trifecta."

The White House Web site offers 12 other examples of Bush using the trifecta formulation going back to Feb. 27 of this year. It's clear Bush is not referring to some unrecorded private conversation with a reporter. He has described the statement as "what I told the American people ... when I was campaigning."

Questions about the story are growing. Last week, Russert confronted Bush budget chief Mitch Daniels, saying, "We have checked everywhere and we've even called the White House as to when the president said that when he was campaigning in Chicago, and it didn't happen." Daniels avoided the question, saying he's "not the White House librarian" and thus hasn't "made a personal search" himself, but that he's "heard the president say it privately and publicly, over and over, for a long time."

And yet Bush repeated it again during remarks at a White House technology forum Thursday:

"You know, we -- these are extraordinary times. I remember campaigning and somebody said, Would you ever deficit spend? I said, only if there was a war, or a recession, or a national emergency. I didn't think we were going to get the trifecta."

Then he repeated it yet again Friday at a fundraiser for Texas Gov. Rick Perry:

"You know, when I was one time campaigning in Chicago, a reporter said, Would you ever have a deficit? I said, I can't imagine it, but there would be one, if we had a war or a national emergency or a recession. Never did I dream we'd get the trifecta."

For now, Bush appears to think it is politically expedient to repeat this story to defend his budget plans. But the record doesn't lie -- and neither should the president.

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By Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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