The Muddle in the Middle

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More than three years have passed since George W. Bush started calling himself a "compassionate conservative," yet even now you could be forgiven for wondering what the phrase means. Last week the President delivered as thorough an answer as we are likely to get: a federal budget as thick and implacable as a tombstone. Bush's budget illustrates why compassionate conservatism, as a practical governing philosophy, is doomed. The first half of the phrase cancels out the second--or maybe it's the other way around. In any case, Bush finds himself in a muddle--too timid to admit his conservative impulses, too conservative to please the forces of compassion.

Democrats, of course, immediately pronounced the budget a fraud and a cheat. The Administration's central claim was that discretionary spending next year would rise 4%--a figure its publicists held aloft as a talisman of compassionate conservatism, at once generous and sensible. Not so, said the green eyeshades at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Leaving aside increases for defense, international affairs and a new reserve fund, "domestic appropriated programs" would increase a total of just 1.5% next year. Since any increase lower than the inflation rate is, by Washington tradition, considered a decrease, Democrats were happy to call the budget politically stillborn.

The President saw this argument coming, and in his budget message tried to stake out a middle position familiar from his campaign stump speeches, rejecting the old dichotomy of Big Government vs. Small Government in favor of--well, both. He had "a new vision for governing the nation." "For too long," he said, "politics in Washington has been divided between those who wanted Big Government without regard to cost and those who wanted Small Government without regard to need." Yet Big-Government needs dominated his team's public presentations. Cabinet Secretaries rushed to the cameras to boast of increases for children's nutrition, AIDS research, food safety--an agenda that would make Bill Clinton beam. Bush hit the road to boom the budget's 11.5% increase in funding for the Department of Education, which now secures its place as the third largest Cabinet department. Only a few years ago, those skinflints "who wanted Small Government without regard to need" (also known as Republicans, of the pre-compassionate variety) tried to abolish that department.

The cuts too are real enough, though Bush's budgeteers did their best to gloss over them. The gluttonous spending increases in the last Clinton budget made the task easier. An explanatory document dispatched to reporters boasted, for example, that "the President's budget proposes a significant increase (+8%) above the Department of Energy's FY 2000 funding." But FY 2000 funding was two years ago. You have to read on to learn that "in total, [Energy] funds decrease by $457 million" from last year. Other programs are not eliminated, not exactly; they have their "resources redirected" to the point where they no longer exist--a euphemism that rivals "downsizing" in its gentility. Funding for potentially huge items, including such signature initiatives as a missile defense and the partial privatization of Social Security, is bumped into the mysterious "out years," which non-budgeteers refer to as "much later."

Bush's critics complain that money is being redirected not to other needs but to his across-the-board tax cut. But of course. Cutting taxes is what conservatives do. Bush's problem is that tax cuts lie outside the realm of compassion, as the word is defined in current political discourse. Compassion has devolved into just another euphemism for governmental activism of the most expensive kind. Bush embraced it at his own risk. A conservative can never win a compassion argument on these terms. Sooner or later he blows his cover.

But this is an argument that the President invited, and he should be prepared to lose it. The terrible political irony is that for all his talk of moving beyond the old categories of right and left, he will soon find himself on the far-right edge of the budget debates--out there all by himself, most likely. Everyone has caught the compassion bug. Senate Democrats and Republicans are already on record as favoring a spending increase of 7%--almost twice what Bush proposes. The misers in the House will be powerless to resist. And chances are, before the year is out, Bush's "new vision for governing the nation" will look a lot like the old one.