The Republican Party's conservative base is becoming increasingly restless with George W. Bush's unwillingness to restrain the growth of federal spending in any way. Last week brought another shot across his bow, when the Manchester Union Leader, one of America's most important conservative newspapers, attacked him for caving in to big spenders.
The occasion for the Union Leader's Aug. 31 editorial was a visit to New Hampshire by newly appointed Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. According to the paper, Gillespie basically said that the Republicans' longtime war against big government has now ended. Government won.
As the Union Leader put it, "The party's new chairman, energetic and full of vigor, said in no uncertain terms that the days of Reaganesque Republican railings against the expansion of federal government are over."
Gillespie was not quoted in the editorial, although his interview with the Union Leader editorial board was on the record. In a subsequent editorial on Sept. 3, the paper explained why it drew the conclusions it did. This time it did quote Gillespie as saying that "fiscal responsibility" was defined by him (and presumably President Bush) as meaning only that federal spending would increase at "a slower rate of growth" than if the Democrats were in power. Obviously, this is a pretty low threshold for success.
Writing in The New York Post, John Podhoretz came weakly to Bush's defense, as he conceded the basic point: "Bush has not fought to control the size of government." (Emphasis in original.) The reason, he says, is that the war on terror takes precedence over everything, and Bush can't fight on every front simultaneously. Therefore, the effort to control big government must take a back seat.
This is a plausible argument, but one that is fatally flawed. Bush is not the first president to face a serious threat to America's national security. The situation confronting Ronald Reagan in 1981 was far worse, with the Soviet Union at the peak of its power and a U.S. military that had been severely weakened by Democrats during the 1970s. As bad as today's terrorist threat may be, thousands of nuclear missiles aimed at the United States were a much greater threat.
Yet despite the need to rebuild America's defenses, Reagan never let it be an excuse to give up on controlling domestic spending. It would have been a lot easier for him to buy the votes needed for national defense by loosening the domestic spending reins. But he never did and fought hard to bring domestic discretionary spending down from 4.7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1980 to 3.1 percent by 1988. That is equivalent to reducing spending by $165 billion per year in today's economy.
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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