Fool's Gold


Ramesh Ponnuru argues that limited-government types dissatisfied with Bush's enormous expansion of the federal government and fiscal deficits are being, well, "dumb."

The dumb case against Bush regards him as having betrayed the historic Republican commitment to keep spending down from year to year. This history stretches all the way back to January 1995, and all the way forward until the fall of 1996. But the dumb case against Bush doesn't pause to acknowledge that Reagan increased spending, too, especially in a first term of recession and defense build-up, or that the Gingrich Congress cut a big-spending budget deal with Clinton in 1997. The case, in its dumbest form, assumes that anti-spenders can, by denying Bush reelection, cause Republicans to return to the true path. Maybe this would even make sense—if it were not the case that much of the country likes increased federal spending just fine, and far more people like than dislike increased spending for any given program. That's why spending has gone up, after all, and not just under this president.

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  1. And while Kerry-Frist gridlock might very well cause spending in 2006 to be lower than it otherwise would be, it also would block that long-term agenda.

    This is a somewhat self-serving statement. Also, isn’t there some bootstrapping going here as well?

    But the dumb case against Bush doesn’t pause to acknowledge that Reagan increased spending…

    Someone needs to orientate this idiot with regard to the Constitutional powers of the Congress and the President.

    Finally, his argument about the history of the Republican party makes me want to vote for Bush even less.

  2. “The case, in its dumbest form, assumes that anti-spenders can, by denying Bush reelection, cause Republicans to return to the true path. Maybe this would even make sense — if it were not the case that much of the country likes increased federal spending just fine, and far more people like than dislike increased spending for any given program. That’s why spending has gone up, after all, and not just under this president.”

    Apparently National Review now stands astride History shouting “Tally-ho!”

  3. Small government conseratives shouldn’t blame Bush for betraying “the historic Republican commitment to keep spending down from year to year,” because there IS not historic Republican commitment to keeping down spending. Therefore, small government conservatives should vote Republican.

    Somebody please tell me that I misunderstood that.

  4. So his case is that there is no redeeming value to Bush and the Republicans whatsoever?

    Republicans are now big government and socially authoritarian.

    Democrats are the same on the first count, but socially less authoritarian.

    So umm, we should vote Democrat because at least they’re honest and consistent about big government?

    I’m gobsmacked.

  5. Oops, joe beat me to it, and said it in a far less confusing manner too.

  6. I wonder – Will Ponnuru pontificate in defense of nationalized Healthcare if it becomes politically expedient ?

  7. But… most of the fiscal conservatives I know aren’t nearly as dumbly partisan as Ponnuru makes out. They are by and large moderates who miss the days of divided government.

    Certainly, they have no truck with NR-style Republicanism.

  8. Remember that Grover Norquist is pulling the strings on this puppet. As this outfit pushes headlong into higher spending, especially military spending, and borrowing rather than cutting other things to pay for it, GN will get his wish to cripple the beast rather than shrink it.

    I wonder if IBM would hire their next CEO on the basis of who could best wreck the company instead of streamline it?

  9. It just goes to show ya….”there’s no government like no government”.

  10. Ponnoru’s an idiot…

    Average annual increase in nondefense discretionary spending (constant dollars) under the last 4 presidents:

    Bush II: 6.0%
    Clinton: 2.2%
    Bush I: 4.0%
    Reagan -1.3%

    Data from:

    Tax Foundation

    Draw your own conclusions…

  11. Let me get this straight. It might take a while because I’m pretty goddamn dumb. I am supposed to support big government spending because a lot of people “like” it?

    If George W. Bush travelled to Germany and demanded that Makhail Gorbachev tear down the now-nonexistent Berlin Wall, I would consider that quite foolish. Apparently Mr. Ponnuru would not being as Ronald Reagan set a precedent.

    It’s unclear what his definition of GOP ideology is. Tradition and conformity?

  12. So, basically, “you’re dumb if you hate Bush because you thought he would make government smaller and spend less”?


  13. He is right in at least one regard. Voting for Kerry does not in any sense convey to Republicans that you prefer a smaller government. It conveys to them that you want Republicans to act like Democrats. The divided government strategy is a short term, best-of-the-bad-possiblities sort of thing. It is not a way to bring about limits on government.

  14. erg,
    Why leave out defense spending?

  15. You don’t support government spending because other people like it, but you should differentiate between the party that would shrink government if it were politically feasible to do so and the party ideologically dedicated to increasing the scope of government.

    If you vote your conscience and go LP, that is fine and delivers a certain message. The counter argument to the LP is that they are fundamentalists who will never persuade the unconverted. Voting for Kerry gets you nothing as a member of any coalition. Nobody courts you because they already know how you will vote – to split the government.

  16. “…Reagan increased spending, too, especially in a first term of recession and defense build-up.

    Am I wrong or did Reagan not send Stockman into the belly of the beast? When did Bush send someone to Congress to do something like that? And Jason Bourne is right again, it was Tip O’Neal’s hands that were on the purse strings.

    The argument that the ballooning budget is a result of Bush’s strategic decision to run a deficit to fight the War on Terror much like Reagan’s decision to forego budget cuts in order to finance the defeat of the Soviet Union might hold water if only Al Qaeda was in an arms race with the United States and President Bush had once–even once–vetoed a non-defense spending bill.

    “…Gingrich Congress cut a big-spending budget deal with Clinton in 1997.”

    If Ponnuru means that the Gingrich Congress played an epic game of brinksmanship which sent thousands of federal workers home and only ended with the threat of the federal government defaulting on its bonds, if he means that and that the Gingrich Congress ultimately balanced the budget with deep budget cuts, then his statement that the, “Gingrich Congress cut a big-spending budget deal with Clinton in 1997” is perfectly accurate.

    Of course, Ramesh Ponnuru’s piece doesn’t address the security questions that traditional conservatives should be asking themselves before voting for Bush.

    Reagan used our alliance to destroy the Soviet Union. Bush’s father worked hard to keep that alliance together after the Cold War. What did we get in return for the Bush Administration’s trashing of that alliance?

    The other questions conservatives should ask themselves are likewise questions about the Bush Administration’s competence. From Abu Gharib to not having a plan, or an utterly failed plan at best, for what to do with Iraq after the invasion, how do we know that we’re not going to get more of the same incompetent decisions if we vote the Bush Administration into power again?

    How does Bush plan to avoid these kinds of failures in the future?

  17. So let me see if I get this:

    There has never been a GOP tradition of less gov’t spending. Therefore they never betrayed your ideals because they never subscribed to them in the first place.

    Therefore fiscal conservatives should vote for Bush.

    There are good reasons to vote for Bush. This isn’t one of them.

  18. jimbo, the reason such figures are limited to nondefense spending is to preclude Bush II supporters from screaming, “But he had to increase defense spending! Don’t you know there’s a war on?!”

  19. Voting for Kerry does not in any sense convey to Republicans that you prefer a smaller government. It conveys to them that you want Republicans to act like Democrats.

    Bush II: 6.0%
    Clinton: 2.2%

    If you’re paying attention you’d probably realize it can perfectly well convey both. Or maybe I’m just being “dumb.”

  20. But there’s some truly funny stuff in this article, you just have to read on a little further:

    George W. Bush is the second-most conservative president of the last six decades. You may think that conservatism has gone astray in recent years, but it is hard to deny that any president besides Reagan has been as closely allied with organized conservatism. (I am not, in other words, making a claim about what the proper definition of “conservatism” should be, just about what it is.) It follows that, in a certain sense, Bush’s defeat next Tuesday would be the most crushing blow that organized conservatism has received since 1964 ? or, really, ever. Reagan, our most conservative president, was not repudiated when he ran for reelection. Bush’s father and Bob Dole had too distant a relationship with conservatism for their defeats to be attributed, by conservatives or even plausibly by others, to their conservatism; in the case of Bush’s father, it was easy to make the case that it was precisely his unconservatism that doomed him.

    So when (yes I said when) Bush takes it on the chin next Tuesday, it will be a crushing blow against “organized conservatism” and not a crushing blow against incompetency, profligacy, and authoritarianism?

  21. Reagan was pretty good on spending, at least that part of non-defense spending that Presidents have some veto-power with, and I’m mildly suprised that NR would fail to credit one of their heroes. On the other hand, anybody who has been suprised by Bush’s spending tendencies is merely self-deluded. What the hell did they expect from a guy who made his pile from direct taxpayer subsidy of his business? Principled pursuit of limited government?

  22. “in the case of Bush’s father, it was easy to make the case that it was precisely his unconservatism that doomed him.”

    Unconservatism? Is he serious? He seems to be viewing the two(one?)-party system as some sort of arbitrary, Byzantine Greens and Blues. My party right or wrong.

    The message to small-gov types is: If you don’t vote for a party that doesn’t represent your ideals, they might lose!

  23. Ken, I share many of your reservations regarding Bush, but to suppose that alliances will or should remain constant as new enemies appear and after old enemies depart, is really ahistorical in the extreme.

  24. jimbo,
    two reasons, mainly what JR said, but also it’s probably true that the required level of spending for defense varies more over time (think WW2). So it’s like core CPI…

    Here’s total spending, tho, from the same source:

    Bush II: 4.6%
    Clinton: 1.0%
    Bush I: 1.9%
    Reagan: 0.9%

    Seems odd to me that nondefense spending grew faster under Bush II than total spending, but them’s the numbers.

  25. sorry, SR not JR

  26. Will Allen,

    Surely, you’ll agree that the alliance was worth something. It patrolled the no-fly zone and enforced the embargo if nothing else. It would have been nice to have more allies on the ground in Iraq, would it not? Well the alliance is gone now, and I don’t see what we got in return for kicking it in the ass on the way out the door.

    That is, the Bush Administration gave it all away for nothing.

    I tend to look at the cost/benefit analysis first; indeed, I have a small list of pragmatic questions about the Bush Administration’s policy decisions. For instance, are we more safe from Iraqi based terrorism now than we were before we invaded Iraq? What did we get in return for throwing away the Geneva Conventions as a matter of policy? Was whatever we got in return for invading Iraq worth more than the American lives it’s cost us so far? There are many traditional conservatives who are underwhelmed by these and other achievements of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, and squandering our traditional alliance, which really would have been useful in the War on Terror, is one of the Bush Administration’s least impressive achievements.

    Compare it to Reagan going to Europe and convincing a sizable slice of the locals to let us deploy Pershings there.

  27. erg,
    Bush Sr’s lower overall growth vs. non-military is probably due to the end of the Cold War. That saved us a bundle.

  28. From the American Conservative:

    “…Bush has behaved like a caricature of what a right-wing president is supposed to be, and his continuation in office will discredit any sort of conservatism for generations. The launching of an invasion against a country that posed no threat to the U.S., the doling out of war profits and concessions to politically favored corporations, the financing of the war by ballooning the deficit to be passed on to the nation?s children, the ceaseless drive to cut taxes for those outside the middle class and working poor: it is as if Bush sought to resurrect every false 1960s-era left-wing clich? about predatory imperialism and turn it into administration policy. Add to this his nation-breaking immigration proposal?Bush has laid out a mad scheme to import immigrants to fill any job where the wage is so low that an American can?t be found to do it?and you have a presidency that combines imperialist Right and open-borders Left in a uniquely noxious cocktail…”

  29. erg’s numbers include the proposed 2005 budget. Anyone have a link to real numbers to the first 3 years?

  30. Ken, convincing a government that had Soviet divisions on it’s border to accept Pershings is somewhat different than convincing them to join a conflict with a country that they hope to do oil trading with, and to pretend that the situations are synonymous is really quite silly.

    As far as some of your other concerns, which I do not have time to address completely, the people of the United States will not be more than marginally safer from significant terrorist threat until the people of the Persian Gulf are governed through their consent, and they make the choice to not use their oil revenues to wage war, or if the people of the United States decide that they are sufficiently threatened to warrant total war on the people on the people of the Persian Gulf. The eight decade-long paradigm of accomodating slave masters so as to facilitate oil extraction will not hold, and the prospect of waging total war so hideous, the only viable alternative is to find some way for the people of the Persian Gulf to govern themselves. This is far from an assured successful task, but make no mistake, if it fails, the Persian Gulf will become a titanic abattoir.

  31. I’m sorry you don’t have time to answer my silly questions; I hope you’ll have time in the future. I’m between phone calls myself, but I have just enough time to point out that convincing Europeans to make themselves the targets of a first strike in what many suspected to be an unavoidable nuclear war seems like a hard sell to me, oil or no oil.

  32. I agree, voting for Republicans because you want smaller government is D U M B. Oh wait…

  33. “did he fritter it away with massive entitlement increases and foreign wars of election?”

    gaius, Clinton’s Balkan interventions, among others, surely qualify as war’s of election. And as many here have pointed out, he did have a Republican congress pitted against him, so you can’t just credit the restraints on entitlement spending to him.

  34. Clinton’s massive entitlement increase FAILED. Remember the health care takeover attempt? After the GOP took the congress he did not try anything so bold again. Clinton’s “success” in this area was a result of his political failures, not the deliberate intention of his policies.

    Please remember, the Democrat’s current reputation for “fiscal conservatism” comes from a preference for higher taxes, not lower spending. The Dems have been quite clear that Bush has not been spending enough for their taste on domestic and social issue.

  35. Clinton’s “Third Way” New Democratic party is dead. If Terry Macauliffe wasn’t a fundraising wizzard, Clinton would be irrelevant, except as a popular figurehead to trot out occasionally to raise funds. Howard Dean buried the Third Way, and Howard Dean’s Ghost (John Kerry) will dance on its grave.

    As for Bush’s spending increases… where the fuck is Congress in all this? Maybe I’m just an asshole, but I always thought Congress had something to do with how much money gets spent.

  36. “Baby, you know that I don’t love you anymore. I’ve been banging every woman I could get my hands on for the last 4 years. But you’ve got to sleep with me again anyway. You used to sleep with me all the time when we were dating. So why not screw me now? I didn’t really love you back then, either. So how ’bout it?”

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