...by Charles Wheelan, Ph.D.
Two different headlines over the past week have confirmed what's been increasingly obvious for a long time: George W. Bush is no conservative.
In case you missed them, here's a review:
1. Bush signs the housing bailout.
Here's my best summary of the housing debacle: Homeowners borrowed much more than they could afford; banks gleefully loaned them the money; and then Wall Street, the self-described smartest people on the planet, bought large quantities of those securitized loans. Which part of that couldn't have been prevented with a little more foresight (and a lot less greed)?
Conservatives are supposed to be about personal responsibility, not government bailouts.
2. The administration announced that the federal budget deficit is projected to be $390 billion this fiscal year and $480 billion next year.
That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unfunded future liabilities. Can you say "baby boomers in retirement"? There's been no progress whatsoever over the past seven years to reign in entitlement spending. In fact, the Medicare prescription drug benefit adds hundreds of billions of new federal spending when we still haven't figured out how we'll pay for the entitlement promises we've already made.
How Sweet It Isn't
If you want to know how bad this problem is likely to get, check out this alarming graph from the Heritage Foundation based on data from the Congressional Budget Office. (Warning to parents: The graph is inappropriate for children -- not because it's pornographic, but because they'll realize how much your generation is totally shafting them.)
Federal Budget Deficit as a Percentage of GDP, 1962-2082
(see attached chart)
The graph shows what policy types have known for a long time: The U.S. has amassed liabilities over the next half century that far outstrip our capacity to pay for them. The Bush administration has made it worse by lowering revenues (the tax cuts) and adding to what we'll owe (the prescription drug benefit).
Conservatives are supposed to be about balancing the budget and limiting the size of government, not about adding new entitlement programs and borrowing money from China to pay for them.
Even the Iraq War -- whether you love it or hate it -- can't possibly be described as a conservative act. Conservatives, in the tradition of Edmund Burke, are supposed to believe in limited government and measured change (as opposed to radical departures from the status quo). Using the military to replace a sovereign regime as a first step toward reshaping the Middle East as a democracy is not a conservative approach.
True, the threat of weapons of mass destruction may have called for quick and dramatic action. But all evidence that has trickled out since the war began suggests that Bush and his supporting cast of neoconservatives -- a complete misnomer if there ever was one -- wanted radical regime change long before the WMD issue arose.
So what is George W. Bush? He's certainly no liberal, either. In fact, we're left with the worst of all worlds: liberal-style spending without the stuff it usually buys.
Seven years of fiscal recklessness hasn't solidified a tattered safety net, or fixed a broken health care system, or upgraded the skills base of America's working class, or improved our crumbling infrastructure, or updated our outmoded international institutions. (Does anybody really believe that France deserves a permanent veto on the U.N. Security Council while India -- the world's largest democracy -- doesn't?) We're spending like drunken sailors, but we're not even getting the hookers and booze.
We did get big tax cuts, but it's getting harder and harder to argue that they were some kind of miracle balm for the economy. And I would have been far more impressed by those cuts if we'd gotten corresponding spending cuts. That's what small government is supposed to be -- lower taxes and less spending. For all intents and purposes we got tax postponements instead, and the bill will eventually come due.
Republicans are starting to distance themselves from Bush. There's something pathetic and unprincipled about that, given that they were complicit in the policies that have made him unpopular. If the Republicans truly stood for sensible conservative policies, they would have ditched him six or seven years ago -- and we'd be better off for it.
The tragedy of the Bush presidency is twofold. First, we've dug ourselves into a huge fiscal hole with essentially nothing to show for it but IOUs to the rest of the world. That's not conservative, and it's not a big-government liberal either. I'm not even sure we have a word for it.
Second, the Republicans are now intellectually adrift. (To be clear, the Democrats have been intellectually adrift for at least 20 years.) The Republicans jumped on the Bush train because they wanted to back a winner, even as that train lurched in directions that cannot possibly be described as conservative.
I know conservatives. Conservatives are friends of mine. You, George Bush, are no conservative. And shame on the Republicans for not recognizing that sooner.
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