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Bush and budgets: The good, the bad, the ugly

By Jackson Murphy
web posted October 13, 2003

With the presidential election just over a year away commentators and analysts are trying to figure out the answer to some fundamental questions. Can any Democrat beat Bush? Has Bush alienated the fiscally conservative and libertarian wings of the Republican Party? Will the increasingly bloated federal treasury politically trump the successes of two wars and the ongoing campaign against terror?

George W. BushLet's start with the bad. The President's war record may be all that is standing in the way of a Democratic victory at this point. National Review commentator Jonah Goldberg explains, "that if it weren't for the war on terrorism, I'd be at a bit of a loss these days to say something nice about him given his performance of the last six months. Yes, yes, tax cuts: good."

Worse, Goldberg continues, "I'm really fighting this feeling that when he said earlier this week that whenever someone's ‘hurting,' the ‘government has to move', he essentially jumped the shark. Maybe I'm just in a down mood about politics generally, but every day it seems more and more like the President is moving the Republican Party to the kissy-huggy liberal center at the behest of Rovian imperatives."

That is why some people have been suggesting, gulp, a long hard look at Howard Dean. Basically the dilemma for Bush is that Karl Rove has placed all the domestic policy chips on the same divide that governed the 2000 election. That the U.S. electorate was completely divided, which partly explains why Bush has governed, more or less, from the center. Which at this point seems squarely left.

If you thought Bush was going to starve children or kill bunnies and puppies in the Rose Garden after his "compassionate conservative" campaign slogan, you didn't understand what Karl Rove has been trying to do. His goal all along was to build a permanent governing majority, period. Can you really put a price tag on that?

If Bush is in trouble of losing his base why is it that the Democrats are encouraging more candidates into the race? "This is how bad things are for George W. Bush: He's back in a dead heat with Al Gore," writes Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.

How about the ugly? Dowd should have written, "And this is how bad things are for the Democrats: Al Gore is in a dead heat with Bush and nobody has even heard of the other candidates." If Bush is doing so poorly (his poll numbers are back where they were pre-9/11) why is it that the Democrats look like they are in full scramble mode?

Everyone seems to want the surpluses of the late 1990's back. Howard Dean seems to think that if he goes back to the taxes under Clinton, the economy will magically do likewise-but hey doesn't that bring back the bubble too. Bubbles bust, it's time to get over it.

The $5.6 trillion that was supposed to line Washington in gold by 2011 is gone -- now a $2.3 trillion deficit. This is like Monopoly money that we should never have had in the first place. David Firestone of The New York Times calls this a fall worthy of Milton and explains, "The $8 trillion difference between those numbers has little precedent in American history. The long-term budget forecast has declined as much in the last two years as the total revenue collected by the United States government from 1789 to 1983."

This demonstrates the absurdity of the whole thing. The libertarians will scoff at him for not cutting spending, but he's done the heavy lifting, lifting the burden of over-taxation.

Which brings us the good. Everything that is good about Bush could be gone if libertarians and fiscal conservatives flee the Bush camp. It would be temping to let the tax cuts expire as scheduled, cutting the deficit in half by 2006. But if the tax cuts are extended the deficit would be cut in half by 2012.

So if libertarians want to try their luck with Dr. Dean or some other candidate, they will quickly find that the tax cut will be gone and that is about it. Spending will remain, since the problem lies more with Congress than it does with Bush. As Robert Novak reports, the Democrats want to use the "$87 billion war spending request to push for still higher domestic outlays." And if you listened to the Democrats at their most recent debate the group of nine had a laundry list of plans. And it is clear that "plan" is a double-secret-code-word for "watch your wallet" in political speak.

Let me get this straight, lose the tax cuts, basically raising taxes, and you cut the deficit in half in three years, but extend them and the same thing happens in nine years? When the forecasts for deficits ebb and flow like the tide and seem about as reliable as the weather its heartening to see that even this year's projections seems to have overstated the case by some $25 billion. Judging what happened in California last week; deficits do matter, but likely more so if you are as uninspiring as Gray Davis.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7.

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