Can We Afford All This?

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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY CLARK MITCHELL

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The Democrats, meanwhile, are not helping deficit hawks make their case, having shown few signs of running on fiscal restraint themselves. In fact, last week one presidential contender, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, tried repeatedly to paint the field's putative front runner, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, as a "balanced-budget freak" and to nail him for once wanting to "slow the rate of growth" of Medicare. Dean bobbed and weaved, proving that he too knows there is no political appetite for a candidate who serves up hard choices. The polls don't seem to give him or his competitors much incentive to do otherwise: fully 72% of Democratic voters say the country should go into debt to spend more on social programs, according to the Pew Research Center, a 20-point increase since 1997, when budget balancing was in high fashion.

Bush's tax cuts have been such nectar to conservatives that there's little danger of a broad fiscal revolt from his base. Furthermore, embracing the prescription-drug entitlement helps build the kind of governing majority that Bush's political brain Karl Rove has long dreamed of. When they were a minority party, Republicans could preach fiscal discipline. Now that they control Congress, the White House and more than half of the state houses, they have to show that they are listening — specifically on issues like health care and education, which were once considered territory only Democrats cared about. So if a little money needs to be spent along the way to buy votes and expand their base, the White House seems happy to open the store.

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