Ross Douthat manfully tries to defend the Bush administration’s record on spending from Peter Robinson, John Cogan, and Glenn Hubbard. Douthat’s strongest argument is that domestic discretionary spending has only increased somewhat as a percentage of GDP and, at 3.6 percent, is still low by the bloated post-Great Society ’70s standards. Some of Bush’s critics exaggerate his spending binges. But I think this argument works better as a criticism of Bush’s most unhinged detractors, not as a defense of the Bush spending record.
First, I’m not sure I would give the president a cookie for not expanding the welfare state as much as the Great Society liberals and their Nixonian enablers (especially since in other areas, like the national debt-to-GDP ratio and the unfunded liabilities of the major entitlements programs, the comparison isn’t entirely favorable). More importantly, since Bush requested and received both a Medicare prescription drug entitlement and a war in Iraq, just tallying domestic discretionary spending stacks the deck in the administration’s favor. But not counting homeland security spending, domestic discretionary spending rose 40 percent between 2001 and 2006. That’s more than it increased under all eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency (39 percent) and at a faster annual rate (7 percent versus 4.2 percent). That is also faster than the rate of inflation.
Bush’s spending record has improved since he began fighting a Democratic Congress instead of accomodating a Republican one. If he had succeeded at Social Security reform rather than (or even in addition to) passing the prescription drug benefit, the picture would look different. But a successful reformist conservatism will probably reject Bush’s fiscal record rather than try to rehabilitate it.
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