On "Meet the Press" Sunday, Tim Russert challenged President Bush about the past. Why didn't we know Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction before going to war with Iraq? Why has federal spending gotten out of control since he became president? Why have we suffered so much economic woe for the past three years?
The president dealt with these questions about the past quite convincingly. My concern is that Republicans aren't offering a riveting vision for the future, no "big ideas" around which to rally the American people and our friends around the world. I sense that with a tightening presidential race, the American people are sending Republicans a message - not "We think the president has done a bad job so far," but rather "You haven't yet convinced us to re-elect Republicans and the president for another four years."
No objective person could have watched the president respond to Russert without being totally convinced that before taking us to war the president believed that Saddam was a threat to the region and ultimately to the United States. "I expected to find the weapons," the president said, and I believe him.
The president also was thoroughly convincing that he truly believed Saddam was such a "dangerous madman" and "a threat of unique urgency" that, in the president's mind, Saddam had to be taken out as quickly as possible. Bush revealed the depth and intensity of his fear of Saddam when he described sitting in the Oval Office in what he described as "the worst nightmare scenario for any president," believing that a madman who cannot be contained had the "capacity to arm up with some of these deadly weapons and then strike us."
"I'm a war president," Bush told Russert. "I make decisions here in the Oval Office in foreign policy matters with war on my mind. ... I see dangers that exist, and it's important for us to deal with them."
Many Americans may disagree with how the president dealt with the dangers he perceived, and they may even disagree with his estimate of the magnitude of the dangers. But after Sunday's interview, I'll bet most people will reject the claim that he intentionally deceived the public and lied us into war.
On domestic matters, when Russert confronted the president with the fact that "your base conservatives ... they're all saying you are the biggest spender in American history," Bush shot back, "They're wrong.
The last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours has steadily declined."
The next time someone challenges the president about runaway federal spending, I hope he goes beyond explanations of the past and offers a bold imaginative plan not only to get spending under control but also to use a spending limitation to make another big idea possible. Why not cap the growth in new federal spending to some reasonable rate and then devote the savings to large personal retirement accounts? Now that's a big idea the American public can get excited about. Rather than choosing between simply ignoring the spending problem or scaring people to death that the administration intends to slash vital public services, I hope the president gives every American worker an incentive to vigorously support spending restraint by making it possible to place the dollars saved by slowing the growth of federal spending directly into their own personal retirement accounts.
As a recent study by budget expert Veronique de Rugy shows, there indeed has been a "massive expansion in the federal budget" since 2001. By the end of this year, total federal outlays will have risen from 18.6 percent of GDP three years ago to 20.5 percent. "Discretionary non-defense spending," she shows, "has risen almost as rapidly as defense spending in recent years." One wonders if perhaps Bush shouldn't appoint another commission to look into the quality of the budget information he is receiving from the budget community. Another "big idea" is a 21st century Marshall Plan for Central Asia and the Middle East. The president put the hard task of "nation building" in the right context when he said, "The best way to secure America for the long term is to promote freedom and a free society and to encourage democracy." During the upcoming campaign, he has an opportunity to fill in the details of how we help nations like Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations in region help themselves to become free and prosperous democracies.
My instincts tell me that after Sunday's interview, the American people will believe the president about the past, but before they give Republicans both the Congress and the presidency again, they will want to know what the vision is for the future. Bush told us Sunday, "I know exactly where I want to lead the country," but he didn't say where exactly that is. In the coming weeks and months he will have an opportunity to tell us to which big ideas he intends to devote his second term.