Why Size Matters in Bush's Budget

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President Bush discusses his budget agenda during a Cabinet meeting

Neither Roger nor Hugh nor the fugitive financier will be much help to President George W. Bush on Tuesday night when he takes the prime-time stage and delivers his budget address to a joint session of Congress with the nation watching. This was what Bill Clinton lived for, the annual sales presentation, and though the man could go on and on, he always his made his inch-by-inch priorities sound like the right, pain-feeling things to do, and afterward the Republicans always sounded stingy and mean.

Tuesday night, Bush means to keep it simple. Two things get bigger — tax cuts and education. Everything else goes on a diet.

The centerpiece of the Bush budget, of course, is the $1.6 trillion tax cut, and the rest of the government must bow down to it. Tuesday night, Bush will likely focus on the core of the plan he sent to the Hill earlier this month — the across-the-board marginal rate cuts — because the rest of it is up for negotiation, and anyway, the size is more important than the details.

Because it's the size that makes the sales pitch. Tuesday night is when Bush is going to try to pull a Reagan on a country and a Congress that may be surprised what his budget plan boils down to. Not compassion, exactly — that was Clinton's thing — but restraint. Restraining the growth of the federal government in time of surpluses. Make Washington eat its vegetables; let the people eat steak.

A little less pork, a bit more discipline

Sunday, White House chief of staff Andrew Card told the opening session of a National Governors' Association meeting in Washington that Bush's budget "brings to the federal government a discipline that it sorely needs.... Yes, there will be people that will be able to find programs that they think are underfunded or overfunded," Card said. "But the budget does reflect the priorities of America. And when you find that line item that you don't like, step back and take a look at the budget that you do like."

Bush knows that Clinton got congressional Democrats — and the nation — used to a hundred little programs, a hundred little spending increases, one for every little need. He's hoping to buy them off with a goodly chunk of new spending on education, and pretty much call it a day. The selling point is a federal government with a little less pork, a little more efficiency, and, most important, one that's growing at something like 4 percent a year, a bit more than inflation but less than the growth rate of 8 percent last year and an average of 6 percent over the past three years.

There will be no Clinton-style laundry lists on Tuesday night, and certainly no lists of things Bush wants to cut. (Those, and there won't be many, he'll save for the small print of the blueprint he sends to Congress on Wednesday morning.) This isn't reform, or reinventing government — just keeping the message focused. Bush basically ran a four-part campaign — tax cuts, education, the military and honor/dignity — and he's already put off his Pentagon overhaul for a year. The honor-and-dignity thing is selling itself these days, which leaves tax cuts and education. Everything else can stay, as long as it doesn't ask for more money.

Economic storm clouds

Every year, Bill Clinton blinded Republicans with detail after detail, and that political mojo of his, along with the economy, did the rest. Bush doesn't do details, and he doesn't have anything to brag about yet except having clean hands.

Of course, Clinton is no good to the Democrats now, and this year it's a Republican in the bully pulpit again. Bush will take to the Teleprompter in economic times that are threatening to turn tough, and he'll be selling restraint of government — and some rich-men's rebates — instead of New Deal sympathies. He's not the salesman Bill Clinton was, but then again neither are Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, and the great thing about American politics is that viewers will have to choose one or the other.

At least it'll probably be a short speech.