Come On, Big Spender

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One of the reasons many of us supported George W. Bush for President in 2000 was his quiet but clear endorsement of the responsibility society. After the drift of the Clinton years, the new President seemed to be saying that he would not trivialize his responsibilities for personal pleasure or political expediency. And in many instances — especially the war on terrorism — he has more than lived up to this pledge.

But there is a glaring exception. It's a basic presidential responsibility, but we sometimes overlook it or think of it as an economic or technical matter rather than a profound moral one. In three short years, this President has so ramped up government spending that he has turned a fiscal surplus into a huge and mounting debt. Far from taking responsibility for the nation's finances, the President has shirked basic housekeeping and foisted crippling debt on the next generation. If a President is in some sense the father of an extended family, Bush is fast becoming a deadbeat dad, living it up for short-term gain while abandoning his children to a life of insecurity and debt.

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Not all borrowing is bad, of course. When a recession hits or a war breaks out, it makes sense for governments to borrow — as long as they pledge to run surpluses in better times. And a big chunk of the current deficit can be blamed on the recession that followed the burst bubble of the late 1990s and on the vital expenditures for a war that shows no sign of abating. But what's remarkable about the Bush record is that this does not explain the full extent of our fiscal crisis. Set aside the tax cuts. What's really worrying to many conservatives is the spending side of the equation. Even if you take his defense and entitlement spending out of the picture altogether, Bush still has increased federal spending a whopping 21% in three years. That compares with an actual decrease of 0.7% in the first three years of Bill Clinton. No wonder small-government groups like the Cato Institute or the Club for Growth are increasingly dismayed.

Spending on education is up 61%; on energy, 22%; on health and human services, 21%; on the Labor Department, a massive 56%. According to a new study by the Brookings Institution, the Bush Administration has boosted the number of people working for the Federal Government to a 13-year high. While the President won't countenance any tax increases to ease the deficit, he is still endorsing the biggest new federal entitlement since 1965, a prescription-drug benefit for seniors. The official cost over 10 years is $400 billion, but given rocketing prices for drugs, it could well be far higher. At the same time, he has done nothing substantive to reform Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security to avert the looming burden of the baby boomers' retirement years.

The only way to describe this philosophy is, "If it feels good, do it." Isn't that the very notion that Bush ran against? The President is not merely reversing a decade of sane fiscal management begun by his father and continued by the very odd couple of Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton, but is racking up the next generation's debt in a way unmatched even by his hero Ronald Reagan. After all, Reagan also oversaw tax cuts and a big increase in military spending during a recession, and he bequeathed huge deficits as a result. But at least he restrained domestic spending at the same time. As a Cato Institute report shows, the Gipper's total federal spending grew 6.8% in his first three years, compared with an increase of more than 15% by Bush. And Reagan had a Democratic House to blame, while Bush has Congress entirely under his party's control. In 1995 Tom DeLay, now the House majority leader, declared, "By the year 2002, we can have a Federal Government with a balanced budget, or we can continue down the present path towards total fiscal catastrophe." If Clintonomics was a "total fiscal catastrophe," what does that make Bush's record?

Worse, the President doesn't even seem to care. When you ask Administration officials about the deficit, they tell you that it does not hurt the President politically. So what? Wasn't this President supposed to be about taking responsibility rather than checking polls? Or they say the Democrats would be worse. Maybe. A USA Today study found that G.O.P.-controlled state legislatures increased spending an average of 6.54% a year from 1997 to 2002, compared with 6.17% for legislatures run by Democrats. Ouch.

One thing we know: the era of the end of Big Government is over. Bush has ended it. The choice now is between Big Insolvent Government (under the Republicans) or Big Slightly Less Insolvent Government (under the Democrats). No wonder voters are restless. And no wonder fiscal conservatives who backed Bush in 2000 are beginning to feel not so much disappointed as betrayed.