Hey, Big Spender

This week’s column is a question, a brief one addressed with honest curiosity to Republicans. It is: When George W. Bush first came on the scene in 2000, did you understand him to be a liberal in terms of spending?

The question has been on my mind since the summer of 2005 when, at a gathering of conservatives, the question of Mr. Bush and big spending was raised. I’d recently written on the subject and thought it significant that no one disagreed with my criticism. Everyone murmured about new programs, new costs, how the president “spends like a drunken sailor except the sailor spends his own money.” And then someone, a smart young journalist, said, (I paraphrase), But we always knew what Bush was. He told us when he ran as a compassionate conservative. This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?

That’s not what I understood him to mean. If I’d thought he was a big-spending Rockefeller Republican—that is, if I’d thought he was a man who could not imagine and had never absorbed the damage big spending does—I wouldn’t have voted for him.

I understood Mr. Bush to be saying, when he first came on the national scene, that he was the kind of conservative who cared very personally about the poor and struggling, who would take actions aimed at helping them, and that those actions would include promoting policies aimed at keeping the economy healthy and capable of pumping out jobs. I also understood Mr. Bush to be saying—and he often said it—that he meant to allow and encourage faith-based programs that helped young men who were getting in trouble with, or at risk of getting in trouble with, the law. It was clear by at least the 1990s that local programs run and staffed by the religious and their organizations had a higher rate of success than did programs that excluded religion. Under Mr. Bush, the feds would no longer funnel money exclusively into nonsectarian programs. The inner-city pastor would now be able to get a portion.

I didn’t understand Mr. Bush’s grand passion to be cutting spending. He didn’t present himself that way. But he did present himself as a conservative, with all that entails and suggests. And as all but children know, conservatism is hostile, for reasons ranging from the abstract and philosophical to the concrete and practical, to high spending and high taxing. Money is power, more money for the government is more power for the government. More power for the government will allow it to, among many other things, amuse itself by putting its fingers in a million pies, and stop performing its essential functions well, and get dizzily distracted by nonessentials, and muck up everything. Which is more or less where we are.

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Yesterday USA Today ran a front-page story that seemed almost designed to give every conservative in America a Grand Klong, a fanciful medical condition that has been described as a great onrush of fecal matter to the heart. Not because it was surprising but because it wasn’t. The headline: “Federal Aid Programs Expand at Record Rate.” The text:

    A USA Today analysis of 25 major government programs found that enrollment increased an average of 17% in the programs from 2000 to 2005. The nation’s population grew 5% during that time. It was the largest five year expansion of the federal safety net since the Great Society created programs such as Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960’s. Spending on these social programs was $1.3 trillion in 2005, up an inflation-adjusted 22% since 2000 and accounting for more than half of federal spending.

Enrollment growth was responsible for most of the spending increase, with higher benefits accounting for the rest. The paper quoted a liberal think tanker saying the increase in the number of people on programs is due to a rise in the poverty rate. It quoted a conservative congressman countering that entitlement programs should not be growing when unemployment is near record lows. Arguments about the report and its numbers will ensue.

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Back to Mr. Bush in 2000. I believe it is fair to say most Republicans did not think George W. Bush was motivated to run for the presidency for the primary reason of cutting or controlling spending. But it is also fair to say that they did not think he was Lyndon B. Johnson. And that’s what he’s turned into.

How did this happen? In the years after 9/11 I looked at Mr. Bush’s big budgets, and his expansion of entitlements, and assumed he was sacrificing fiscal prudence—interesting that that’s the word people used to spoof his father—in order to build and maintain, however tenuously, a feeling of national unity. I assumed he wanted to lessen bipartisan tensions when America was wading into the new world of modern terrorism. I thought: This may be right and it may be wrong, but I understand it. And certainly I thought Bush was better on spending than a Democrat, with all the pressures on him to spend, would be.

A John Kerry would spend as much and raise taxes too. But could a President Kerry spend more than President Bush? How?

In any case, what bipartisan spirit there was post-9/11 has broken down, Mr. Bush will never have to run again, and he is in a position to come forward and make the case, even if only rhetorically, to slow and cut spending. He has not. And there’s no sign he will.

Which leaves me where I was nine months ago, in the meeting with conservatives, rubbing my brow in confusion.

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The president likes to speak of his philosophy when it comes to foreign affairs. But what about domestic affairs? I think he has a real responsibility to speak here about his thinking, about what he’s doing and why.

Mr. President:

Did you ever hold conservative notions and assumptions on the issue of spending? If so, did you abandon them after the trauma of 9/11? For what reasons, exactly? Did you intend to revert to conservative thinking on spending at some point? Do you still?

Were you always a liberal on spending? Were you, or are you, frankly baffled that conservatives assumed you were a conservative on spending? Did you feel they misunderstood you? Did you allow or encourage them to misunderstand you?

What are the implications for our country if spending levels continue to grow at their current pace?

What are the implications for the Republican party if it continues to cede one of the pillars on which it stood?

Did compassionate conservatism always mean big spending?