- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2001

It was a mountain rather than an ocean vacation but President Bush drew a line in the sand anyway, promising to veto congressional spending busting his budget. All Washington awaits the Fall Battle of the Budget, for it determines winners and losers on the basis of who gets how much money. Ronald Reagan was declared the winner by the Democratic speaker of the House because he cut nondefense spending by 15 percent in 1981-82 (and again by 2 percent in 1985-86). The first President Bush was a loser with Congress because nondefense spending rose by 8 percent during his tenure. That is how pols keep score.
The situation with the current President Bush is complicated by the fact that his team keeps moving the goal posts. The original Bush budget called for growth of only 4 percent, the rate Bill Clinton achieved in 1997-98. But, in order to get additional defense funding in the spring, the president "stretched" the caps on spending and is now (apparently) seeking a 6 percent increase in discretionary spending — about the average of the Clinton years. Those were tricky years for averaging since spending actually went down 3 percent after Republicans took control of the House in 1994 and went up 11 percent the last year when Mr. Clinton and the GOP opened the spending floodgates to buy votes in the 2000 election.
Even with the moving target, Mr. Bush keeps even nominal spending down only by predicting a higher rate of growth next year than do the "blue chip" private sector economists and by "reallocating" $5.6 billion for 2001 from the Social Security surplus to the normal budget, freeing up $4.3 billion for additional spending. Mr. Bush's opponents think he is a bit light in the brain department. His ability to thus maneuver, however, shows he is a politician of no little merit. Mr. Bush, in fact, is as good a politician as Mr. Clinton — high praise indeed. He has learned much from him, even more than from President Reagan, to whom he often gives credit. Rather, both followed the real politician's handbook, Machiavelli's "The Prince."
"Leave affairs of reproach to the management of others, and keep those of grace in [your] own hands." Appear "merciful, faithful, humane, upright and religious" whether you are or not. Disguise your strengths. Appease your supporters — but no more than necessary. Like the fox, blunt the opposition with a few favors. Like the lion, keep the middle "satisfied and contented" by generous acts (but fight excessive tax liberality). Mr. Bush produced for his core supporters by reversing the Clinton abortion orders and passing a tax cut aimed at his higher-income supporters, although wisely also spread to the middle. Sending out actual checks in the mail was truly princely. He blunted the left by opposing racial profiling and, generally, wooing blacks and Hispanics. He even just ducked his first chance to oppose racial preference in contracting. He played "nice" for the middle on education, stem-cell research, faith-based initiatives, disability loans, drug benefits and welfare. Even his focus upon foreign policy is from Machiavelli.
On education, he was able to get The Washington Post to say that "Democrats embraced many of his ideas" and to enlist very liberal San Francisco Rep. George Miller to lead the charge. Only Republicans expressed dismay at the additional federal controls, and not too loudly at that. Their one bone — vouchers for privately educating those in failing public schools — was taken out of the bill. Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy again joined Mr. Bush, for the fourth time in two weeks, in the East Room to announce the later's plan to increase by tenfold the funding for low-interest loans to help average people purchase technology.
When Mr. Bush sent a $48 billion four-year, state-based plan to help poor, elderly Americans pay for prescription drugs, the White House — which did not even hold a briefing promoting the bill beforehand — immediately responded that it would compromise with additional spending or with a larger national program to meet Democratic objections. Even for his "faith based," private sector welfare initiative, he convinced Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and "communitarian" liberals William Galston, Amitai Etzioni and Robert D. Putnam to support his proposal initially, while Marvin Olasky — its original promoter — finally opposed it as too compromised by Congress.
By the end of summer, the vast middle liked the compromises, the Republicans kept quiet and the Democrats got the policy results (except on abortion and taxes) — a Machiavellian performance indeed. But Washington reads the real bottom line, as Machiavelli also taught its leaders. If spending goes above 6 percent, the fox is found without power and the jackals rule.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide