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“Every catastrophe, real or imagined, is every politician’s newest reason for doing what they wanted to do all their life.”

The numbers story

Mr. Bush, in his final State of the Union address, tried to salvage the Republican Party’s reputation as the party of small government and limited spending.

“Our greatness lies not in our government but in the spirit and determination of our people,” Mr. Bush said, as he announced a crackdown on earmark spending that will not take effect until after he leaves office.

The Bush administration did push through tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. But Mr. Bush’s legacy on spending will likely be that he did not try to restrain it until Democrats took control of Congress in 2006.

“We’ve had too much government and too much spending, and … the size of government has grown by 40 percent in the last eight years. We can’t afford that in the next eight years,” Mr. McCain said Wednesday night during his final debate with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

The White House rejects a color-by-numbers narrative.

“If people want to make a shallow argument based on bottom-line spending numbers, that’s their choice,” Mr. Fratto said. “But who is willing to stand up and say the country should be less safe for the sake of smaller government? No one.”

The president’s current budget director, Mr. Nussle, expressed frustration at those who look only at budget statistics.

“It’s like, well, OK, we were prosecuting a war during that time, we had a number of natural disasters, we were protecting the homeland in a completely new way, we were dealing with new intelligence concerns that needed additional resources,” Mr. Nussle said during an interview.

“It’s not the full story to just do it by numbers,” he said.

But the numbers do tell quite a tale.

Federal spending grew from $1.9 trillion in 2000 to what will be at least $3.4 trillion in 2009. That number does not include a possible $300 billion second economic stimulus package, as well as another $60 billion in last-minute carryover spending from 2008.

There is also the second tranche of $450 billion that the Treasury Department will spend on buying up bad assets from troubled financial institutions, but it is not clear whether that will hit the books in 2009.

Nevertheless, it is likely that the total budget could approach the $4 trillion mark in 2009, one year after passing the $3 trillion mark.

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