Friday, June 13, 2003

George Bush is a big-government conservative. You don’t hear this very often because big-government liberals do most of the reporting on budget and economics stuff and, well, they like government spending. Conceding that a Republican president is spending money like Uday Hussein on a Paris shopping trip would seem like a compliment to these people.

Meanwhile, conservatives are loathe to criticize a popular and good president during a time of national emergency. So, the only time Bush’s spending binges really come up for criticism are when liberals want to criticize Bush’s alleged “hypocrisy” for spending money like a Democrat or to criticize Bush for cutting taxes.

The case that Bush is a big spender is irrefutable. Federal spending on Bush’s watch has sky-rocketed. According to the Heritage Foundation, the years 2000 to 2003 marked the biggest spending spree in the history of the United States, except for WWII. Total spending has gone up nearly 14 percent in Bush’s first three years, and discretionary spending has gone up nearly 20 percent.

Bush spent a pile not only on guns, but on butter. Non-defense spending has gone up by almost the same amount as defense spending, and defense spending constitutes barely a fifth of the total increase in spending from 2000 to 2003.

What are we spending it on? Well, President Bush (contact) joined up with Senator Edward Kennedy for the biggest expansion of federal spending on education in decades. He agreed to a farm bill that had more pork in it than an all-you-can-eat North Carolina Super Bowl Buffet.

In fact, Bush has an annoying habit of opposing proposals on the grounds they’re bad policy or too expensive only to end up supporting them when the pressure gets too intense.

He opposed federalizing airport security workers and then agreed to do it anyway. He resisted extending unemployment benefits and then reversed course.

He was against a prescription drug benefit under Medicare and now he favors one. He came out against a big new Cabinet agency to direct homeland security and then proposed his own huge new Cabinet agency to direct homeland security.

Most recently, when the Congress passed a huge tax cut, people who don’t pay income taxes were “left behind,” according to Democrats and The New York Times.

So, even though the Democrats originally opposed any tax cut at all, they insisted that $10 billion in new “tax cuts” go to these low-income families.

When the bill passed the Senate, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked what the president thought the House should do. He declared: “Pass it!”

Now, there’s all sorts of stuff to say in the president’s defense. Bush leapt onto a barreling freight train of overspending when he took office.

Congressional Republicans have been outrageously generous with other people’s money. Saying that they overspend a little less than Democrats would is a defense, but hardly a great one. No hold-up man has ever gotten a pass by saying, “Well, my partner wanted to rob twice as many liquor stores.”

President Bush also inherited a weak economy. The recession began on Clinton’s watch when the ‘90s bubble burst. Spending money during a recession is certainly more forgivable than spending it the way we did during the boom.

Also, Sept. 11 resulted in real costs for the government that aren’t just military in nature. I think a lot of Bush’s spending on homeland security -and certainly on defense -was warranted or certainly defensible. But there’s no getting around the fact that Bush is a big spender. He hasn’t vetoed any spending bills and he hasn’t proposed any huge spending cuts the way Ronald Reagan or Newt Gingrich would have.

Oh, let me head off some e-mailers: Yes, spending went up under Reagan. But not nearly as much as under Bush. And, Reagan proposed major cuts, vetoed spending bills from a Democratically controlled Congress and -oh yeah -won the Cold War.

Which raises one last defense of Bush that his detractors are simply blind to. He’s a different kind of Republican.

I never liked his “compassionate conservatism,” in part because it sounded like a Madison Avenue slogan for a Republican version of feel-your-pain Clintonism rather than an alternative to it. But not only did compassionate conservatism work, it actually has some substance to it.

Saying government needs to be “more compassionate” translates to government should “do more.” So, for example, President Bush proposed last year to spend $300 million on marriage counseling to prevent divorce. He wants to give piles of taxpayer dollars to faith-based organizations. He wants the federal government to impose “conservative” education policies on the states. And so on. Meanwhile, Gingrich wanted Medicare to “wither on the vine” and the Department of Education to be like dust in the wind.

As with Bush’s overspending, there are good and bad arguments for and against these ideas. But one thing is clear: Bush’s brand of conservatism is awfully expensive.

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