Bush: A Born-Again Conservative?

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President George W. Bush makes a statement on the budget at the Eisenhower Executive Office Buildings in Washington September 24, 2007.

President George W. Bush spent Monday morning cautioning a group of young CEOs about excessive spending. It was clear that his statement was primarily aimed at Congress — a warning that he is serious about vetoing Democratic plans to add $22 billion to next year's budget for education, health and veterans' programs. But Bush's fighting words aren't just about the current battle over spending — they are as much about his efforts to shape his legacy as a committed fiscal conservative, all prior evidence to the contrary.

"Some in Congress will tell you that $22 billion is not a lot of money. As business leaders, you know better," Bush said at the Washington event. "The only way to pay for such a large spending increase is to raise taxes on the American people."

The fight over appropriations is just one of two big confrontations brewing between the White House and the Democrat-controlled Congress. This week both chambers are expected to pass bipartisan legislation to expand state health care programs for children (known as SCHIP) — a move Bush labels as the first step toward socialized medicine. He says he'll veto that bill as well.

The President who has famously never vetoed a spending bill is suddenly concerned with an increase that amounts to 2.4% of the $933 billion budget he requested for fiscal 2008. The man who created the $140 billion Medicare prescription drug program is threatening to veto a bill that would grow state children's health care programs by $35 billion. And out of the blue Bush is suddenly talking entitlement reform again, two years after his push to overhaul Social Security died.

With Democrats eager to tar the White House as insensitive to children, many observers think the President couldn't have picked a worse fight with which to prove his credentials. But regardless of the immediate political cost over a possible veto of SCHIP, these are fights the President welcomes in his last 16 months in office. After the largest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society four decades ago, he is bending over backward to show committed budget hawks that he is really one of them. Earlier this week the White House went so far as to say that the President was making a stand on SCHIP because it was a "philosophic issue."

For many conservatives, the near-deathbed conversion is all too unconvincing. "We probably lost the 2006 elections because of his record on spending," said Paul Weyrich, founder of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. "He says, 'Well, I had a Republican Congress and I didn't want to go against a Republican Congress.' Well why not? He could've vetoed all those bills. People would've been happy about it."

Since his party lost control of Congress last year, the President has been criticized on everything from his failed attempt to overhaul immigration laws to the war in Iraq. But the biggest betrayal, in conservatives' eyes, has been the complete lack of fiscal discipline. In editorial after editorial the movement's giants such as Richard Viguerie, William F. Buckley and George Will have all attacked the President's spending and warned the party that they are bleeding grassroots support. Viguerie went so far as to write a book released last year called Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause.

"Bush would say: 'If you look at the growth of the economy — the tax cuts, the new jobs — I have nothing to be ashamed of in terms of managing the economy,'" Will said in an interview. "Conservatives would say: 'That's true, but it's the management of the government that you're paid for.'"

The White House defense, as articulated by Bush's former political adviser Karl Rove, has been that spending starts in Congress and that Bush threatened to veto Republican spending bills 146 times in the last six years. Given the recession Bush inherited, the corporate scandals, the 9/11 attacks and their effect on the economy, plus the war on terror, Katrina and border security, it's practically a miracle that the budget is on track to be balanced by 2012, Rove said in an interview.

"Take out military spending, which I don't think a single conservative would begrudge. Take out border security — we've tripled the budget for border security — and again, I don't think many on the right would begrudge those expenditures or the money, and we've kept other discretionary spending virtually flat, often below the rate of inflation," Rove said. "Are there parts of the budget that we've grown? Yes. But if you look at the discretionary domestic side of the budget, you'll see we've put the brakes on pretty hard."

But even dedicated fiscal conservatives think Bush's threatened veto of the bipartisan plan to increase SCHIP is misguided. "I don't think I would do it if I were President," Weyrich said. "It's not worthwhile in terms of political gain."

Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Leviathan on the Right, a book about Bush's rampant spending, doesn't buy Bush's commitment since, as he points out, the President actually advocates a $25 billion expansion of the program — just not the $35 billion Democrats want. "When you look at the battle over SCHIP — he actually wants to increase spending," Tanner said. "'I will only increase this by X percent,' — this is not a rallying cry to fiscal conservatives."

"Bush pushed through that mammoth farm bill that put subsidies back in that were taken out under Newt Gingrich. He oversaw huge increases to federal education. And that's before you even get to his new entitlement, the Medicare Prescription Drug Program, which could add as much as $11.2 trillion in unfunded liabilities to Medicare," Tanner said. "He's been fairly liberal when it came to domestic spending."

Among the most surprising developments in Bush's fall spending offensive has been the Administration's return to the issue of entitlement reform. His proposed 2008 budget calls for cutting as much as $57 billion from Medicare over the next five years by cutting waste and abuse, tying provider payments to productivity and increasing fees on the wealthy, as well as another $30 billion or so in cuts to Medicaid and other entitlement programs. "Whether we balance the budget or whether or not the appropriations bills are done on time, these are all important goals, but they pale in comparison to" the country's long-term entitlement problems, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle told TIME. "The President made very specific proposals on the long term. We have not seen any proposal out of the Hill to match that."

Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican who heads the conservative Senate Steering Committee, welcomed Bush's move — though he admitted it's purely symbolic. "I don't think we're actually going to get the legislation done," DeMint said. "But if he could help build the foundation so Americans understand it's a problem that needs to be fixed, he could do a good service if he could lay the groundwork for the next President."

Still, Bush faces long odds in cementing his legacy as starting the conversation on entitlement reform, when so many activists blame him for botching the effort. "He just stumbled out of the barn and said: 'We want to reform Social Security,'" Weyrich said. To bring it up now, in the final 16 months of his presidency, "when he's a lame duck and Democrats control Congress," Weyrich added, "I just don't see how he can do it."

A former White House official blames the loss on Social Security on congressional Republicans. "Among our least courageous friends on this were our ostensible allies on the Hill who continually said: 'Please don't take this on, please don't take this on,' including the most conservative members of Congress," the official said. "I have to say that one of the things that shocked me was the lack of courage on entitlement reform."

While most fiscal conservatives have given up on Bush, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, said he still respects that Bush made tax cuts such a big priority and he's willing to give the President this one last shot to get it right. "I hear that they plan on focusing on this all fall and if he's drawn a line in the sand and he keeps it then that'll be hard to ignore," Norquist said. "We're Americans: We judge people by how they finish and not how they start."

That may be true. But Americans also judge people by their actions and not their words, something George Will keeps in mind: "He's suddenly got religion and it's a conversion that coincides tellingly with the change of control of Congress," Will said. "It's certainly the sensible political position. Whether or not it'll change the perception of him, in terms of his legacy, I highly doubt it. The earmarks in the highway bill and the farm bill will be much more telling of his legacy."