Nussle’s argument about the “fiscal surplus” masking deficits in our defense and homeland security capabilities points to another missed opportunity for conservatives and Republicans: After 9/11, we could have had a debate about returning government to its proper role. While I’m not a fan of many of the things this administration has done in foreign policy, national defense is a legitimate function of the federal government. To the extent that our spending in other areas was making it difficult to perform that legitimate function, the other spending should have been cut. Even New Deal liberals like FDR and Harry Truman cut non-war spending in wartime, a fact Nussle’s predecessor Mitch Daniels emphasized in a 2002 Washington Post op-ed. Yet armed with that knowledge, Bush and the Republican Congress instead allowed spending increases across the board. It’s nice of them to object now that the Democrats are doing the same, but it would have been better for them to have done something to limit government while the allegedly limited-government party had unified control of Washington.
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