"[T]he burden of government is not measured by how much it taxes, but by how much it spends." ~ Milton Friedman
A Remarkable Record of (Big Government) Achievement
One year ago, the First Baptist Church of Whatchacula, Pennsyltucky, hired a Mr. Bill Z. Bubb as its pastor. Some of the board members at the time had expressed some concern that Bubb was not quite theologically orthodox, but he had won them over during his interview and subsequent sermons by speaking as a true believer.
Now it was time for the board to consider whether or not to retain Bubb for another year. Bubb, knowing some of the board members were still a little uncertain of him, took it upon himself to make the case for his being retained. He began by reminding the board of his fine, biblical sermons which had won several converts. After that, however, he told them of all the unorthodox and downright heretical things he had done over the past twelve months. He regaled them with tales of spending church money on liquor and women, discussing a merger of congregations with the local mosque, showing porno flicks to the youth group, and having an affair with his secretary, among many other misdeeds. Occasionally he would toss in a Bible verse or two, just to remind the board members that he really was one of them, despite all appearances to the contrary. When Bubb finished his presentation, the board took a vote.
Question: If you were a member of the church board, would you vote to retain Bill Z. Bubb?
If you consider yourself a conservative or libertarian, you will find yourself in the very same conundrum this November. You see, you probably voted for George W. Bush in 2000, believing, perhaps despite some misgivings, that he was a true-blue conservative. Rush Limbaugh reminded us incessantly (and still reminds us) that Bush is a conservative, and National Review endorsed him for president (and will no doubt do so again this year).
Nevertheless, Bush has clearly done many things that would not qualify as conservative over the last four years, and he knows it. Thus, like our fictional Mr. Bubb, the president has made the case for the American people to retain him for another term. Entitled President George W. Bush: a Remarkable Record of Achievement, this 45-page document outlines exactly why Bush believes he should be returned to office next January. Also in the fashion of Bubb, there are a few bones thrown to the conservatives, but the case Bush makes for himself is overwhelmingly a record of big'even enormous'government.
The first sentence of the document is itself quite a doozy: 'President George W. Bush's first term has been among the most consequential and successful in modern times.' It's immediately apparently that Bush has no problem with humility. It is quite true that his first term has been 'among the most consequential'; trouble is, the consequences have included skyrocketing federal spending, increased federal power (and correspondingly decreased liberty for average Americans), the deaths of thousands in wars of Bush's own making, and the creation of countless new enemies for the U.S. in the Muslim world. Has Bush's first term been 'successful,' however? Well, to borrow from Bill Clinton, it all depends on the meaning of successful. If success is defined as preserving and extending Americans' freedom, then Bush is a dismal failure. If, on the other hand, success is defined as preserving and extending the federal government's power, then Bush is indeed the 'most . . . successful [president] in modern times.' Of course, one could also ask when 'modern times' began; perhaps, for Bush, they began in 2001, in which case there is no other president against whom he has to compete for the title of 'most consequential and successful.'
Unfortunately, the document doesn't get any better as it goes along. Bush proudly, and relatively honestly, describes all his unconstitutional spending programs. On the other hand, when it comes to proving his conservative bona fides, he ends up'of necessity'resorting to half-truths and distortions (charitably referred to as 'spin' by our 'adversarial' press). In addition, he indirectly takes credit for numerous cultural and economic trends over which he has little to no control.
Perhaps the one genuinely, unreservedly conservative accomplishment which Bush trumpets in his document (although you have to read 19 other pages, most of them devoted to our fearless leader's supposed trouncing of terrorists and protection of his subjects, to get to it) is his tax cut. 'President Bush, working closely with Congress, provided the largest tax relief in a generation.' (Overemphasis in original, as it is throughout the document.) Of course, given that the last significant tax cuts took place at the start of Ronald Reagan's first term, this isn't saying much. On top of that, the spending increases which Bush has signed into law dwarf the amount of money Americans are retaining as a result of the cuts and, in combination with the cuts, only make the day of reckoning for the federal government's massive debt that much more to be feared.
Some of Bush's other tax reforms, such as increasing the child tax credit and reducing the 'marriage penalty,' are not bad ideas. His elimination of estate taxes (although this is only temporary) is a good thing, too.
Under 'Promoting a Culture of Life' (p. 38) we find some arguably conservative policies, although there is a big caveat for several of them. Bush did restore the policy prohibiting federal funds from being given to organizations that pay for or promote abortions. On the other hand, while his signing of the partial birth abortion ban, the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act may seem conservative on the surface, one would be hard pressed to find any clause in the Constitution giving the federal government the authority to enact such legislation, and anything that oversteps the bounds of the Constitution ought to be anathema to conservatives, who routinely pledge fealty to that venerable document.
As much as Bush is lauded by conservatives for his 'moral clarity' and 'rock-solid principles,' his compromise on the issue of federally funded embryonic stem cell research'which he describes quite matter-of-factly, without the more strident language attached to the bullet point about the partial birth abortion ban'hardly seems like the decision of a man with the courage of his convictions. If anything, it's positively Clintonesque.
That pretty well exhausts the supply of conservative achievements listed in the document. Now let's look at what's left, which is to say, the other 44.5 pages.
As noted earlier, the first 19 pages are primarily devoted to the president's wars, nation-building (remember when candidate George W. Bush specifically eschewed this use of the military four years ago?), and protection of the homeland (a word which still strikes me as vaguely Eastern Bloc or Third Reich).
Now there are those who will argue that Bush's willingness to go to war, and particularly his willingness to take on Saddam Hussein, is proof positive of his conservatism and the primary reason to reelect him; clearly Bush thinks so, or he wouldn't have devoted 40 percent of his case-for-reelection document to the subject. That the war on Iraq , especially, is not a conservative policy in any sense has been written about exhaustively here at STR and elsewhere, and I have neither the space nor the inclination to rehash all of that yet again. For a short case against war as a conservative policy, though, consider the fact that all the presidents who got us into major wars in the Twentieth Century were liberal'very liberal'Democrats.
Even if the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq both qualify as conservative achievements, however, is Bush thereby absolved of responsibility for the lies that he used to get the American people and Congress to acquiesce to his will? Where are the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, or even the weapons programs, that Iraq was said to possess? Where is the working relationship between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda? Where is the (implied) connection between Iraq and 9/11? Where are the flowers with which U.S. troops were supposed to be greeted by the peoples grateful to have been liberated by them? Conservatives were willing'eager, in fact'to toss Bill Clinton out of office over far less consequential falsehoods. Where is the anger and outrage against Bush?
In addition, neither war was preceded by the constitutionally required declaration of war from Congress. If conservatives really take the Constitution seriously, then it's their duty to, at the very least, vote Bush out of office, if not press for his impeachment and trial.
Not surprisingly, given that the wars were predicated on lies from day one, these pages of the document are the ones most heavily loaded with lies and distortions.
Under 'Fighting Global Terrorism' (p. 5), Bush announces that the U.S. 'has waged two of the swiftest and most humane wars in history.' Now, I don't know about you, but the fact that the U.S. is still fighting battles in Afghanistan three years after the war began hardly seems to justify its being described as 'swift' to me. Similarly, our troops are still bogged down in daily battles'and many more of them'in Iraq 16 months after Bush declared the mission accomplished. Swift? Jonathan, maybe. There's also no such thing as a 'humane' war. All war kills, maims, and destroys; and smart bombs or no, lots of innocent people are going to be killed or injured or have their homes destroyed or damaged. If the deaths of over 10,000 Iraqis qualify as 'humane,' then I'm Tiger Woods.
There is much celebration in the document of the supposed 'liberation' and transition to 'democracy' in both Afghanistan and Iraq . The reality is that both countries have simply seen the equivalent of a changing of the guard. Both are ruled by U.S.-backed former CIA 'assets' who rule without opposition within their respective governments. In Afghanistan , Hamid Karzai barely controls Kabul and is protected from his 'liberated' people by U.S. troops. In Iraq , Iyad Allawi is a virtual dictator, and the freedoms enjoyed by the Iraqi people are few and far between. The purported sovereignty is a sham; and the upcoming elections, in which only one slate of candidates'the one selected by those already in power in the U.S.-appointed Governing Council'will be allowed to run despite the fact that both slates submitted failed to meet the gender quotas (yet another anti-conservative policy) in the Iraqi constitution, are just as phony.
Interestingly, Bush states with obvious disdain that 'Saddam Hussein's regime spent $16 million in 2002 on health care'less than one dollar per Iraqi per year.' These days, however, ' Iraq 's budget for the Ministry of Health is now $950 million.' In other words, the Bush-installed Iraqi government is going to make the Iraqi health care system nearly 60 times more socialized than Saddam had made it. Now there's conservatism for you!
Moving along to the chapter on 'Strengthening Our Military, Supporting Our Veterans' (p. 9), we find that the Bush administration has also aided in socializing medical care here at home via 'unprecedented levels of funding for veterans,' including 'a more than 40 percent increase in veterans' medical care spending alone,' getting '2.5 million more veterans to enroll for health care,' and spending '$1.5 billion . . . to increase outpatient health care services for veterans, to build new hospitals, and to modernize or replace outdated pre-World War II facilities.'
We also find that the president 'has increased defense spending by more than one-third'the largest increase in a generation.' There is, of course, a reason defense spending hadn't risen as rapidly in recent years: namely, the end of the Cold War and the quite reasonable notion that perhaps America no longer needed'if it had ever needed before'the vast empire of military bases and stockpiles of weapons that we had during the half-century standoff with the Soviet Union. There is, on the flip side, no good reason, unless one believes in Bush's policy of perpetual war for perpetual peace, to believe that defense spending genuinely needed to rise this fast'and it certainly doesn't contribute to reducing the deficit or making future tax cuts more likely.
Next we come to the chapter 'Promoting Peace and Democracy'and Acts of Mercy' (p. 12). Okay, conservatives, show me where any of those is an enumerated power of the federal government in the Constitution. Promoting democracy, especially through war and foreign aid, is a delusion characteristic of 'progressives' (i.e., liberals) such as Woodrow Wilson, not hard-headed conservatives who (used to) believe that the purpose of the U.S. military was to defend vital U.S. interests.
Under the 'Averting Conflicts' section of that chapter, Bush refers to his 'multilateral approach' (Horrors! Shades of John Kerry!) to getting North Korea to divest itself of nuclear weapons. Isn't it funny how a country that actually has nukes gets treated with kid gloves, whereas one that doesn't threaten us in the least gets the total war treatment? Another of the great conflicts averted was the one in Liberia back in 2003. You remember the vital U.S. interest that was threatened there; don't you? Sounds more like a Clintonian 'humanitarian' intervention to me.
The rest of the chapter is devoted to the various billions of taxpayers dollars that Bush is shelling out around the world to do such conservative things as fighting AIDS in Africa ('During the last three years, America has given more international AIDS assistance than the rest of the world's donor governments combined'), tying foreign aid to 'political, legal, and economic reforms' (meaning 'do what your sugar daddy says or you'll be on your own), and providing 'clean drinking water to 50 million people in the developing world.' He's also tried to get African countries to reduce 'barriers to trade,' presumably as he did in enacting steel tariffs, for example.
'Protecting the Homeland' (p. 15) is the title of the next chapter, which, naturally, tells us how much safer Bush has made us, in sharp contrast to the constant terrorist warnings and displays of armed-to-the-teeth National Guardsmen to which we have become accustomed over the last three years. First we get Bush's proud achievement, the creation of the new federal behemoth known as the Department of Homeland Security, which unifies 'once-fragmented Federal functions in a single agency dedicated to protecting America from terrorism.' At least that's what it's supposed to do. Apparently it isn't doing a very good job of it because Bush also 'supports the creation of a National Intelligence Director' to tie together all the agencies as well. Of course, he didn't support this until after the 9/11 Commission, which he had also opposed, recommended it in its report.
Another way in which Bush has made the homeland safer is'surprise, surprise'by spending our money. He has 'nearly tripled homeland security discretionary funding,' and more than '$18 billion has been awarded to state and local governments to protect the homeland.' As we all know, positive results of government efforts are usually inversely proportional to the amount of money spent on them, so it's safe to assume that this won't do much at all to make us safer. In fact, we now know that much of that $18 billion has gone to pork barrel projects rather than anything even remotely related to homeland security.
Then there's the USA PATRIOT Act and other 'tools to fight terrorism, including roving wire taps and the capacity to seize assets,' all of which are remarkable achievements, according to Bush. Indeed, they are remarkable in the sense that they gut what little remained of the Fourth Amendment prior to 9/11 and give the government all kinds of new power to snoop into our private business. Once again we see conservative principles in action.
The administration has also, according to itself, put forward 'initiatives to detect radiological materials being smuggled into our Nation,' which have worked so well that various TV news crews have been able to thwart them without much effort at all.
Then there are improvements in aviation security, such as the administration's continual fight against allowing pilots to be armed; the air marshals that have recently been discovered to be drunk, on drugs, or sleeping on the job, or to have criminal backgrounds; and the airline screeners whose backgrounds were never checked and who have stolen items from passengers' luggage on numerous occasions. Naturally, the administration doesn't quite put it this way; instead, these are all great achievements with no problems whatsoever.
Most of the remaining pages of the document consist of nothing but a laundry list of government spending'everything from extended unemployment benefits to business and home loans to Medicare prescription drug benefits to the No Child Left Behind Act to energy research'and regulations. Some of these very policies, such as universal broadband access and AmeriCorps, were quite properly opposed by conservatives when they were proposed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Now a purportedly conservative president is touting them as remarkable achievements of his administration.
Lest fiscal conservatives become too concerned about all this profligacy, the administration has an easy'and thoroughly disingenuous'answer: 'President Bush brought the annual rate of growth in non-security discretionary spending down from 15 percent in the last budget enacted during the Clinton Administration to a proposed 0.5 percent for next year' (p. 21). This is patently false unless one accepts the administration's definition of security spending.
According to the Cato Institute, under Bush real discretionary spending has risen every year at rates at least double that of the rate of increase in Clinton 's final budget. In addition, defense discretionary spending has risen over 36 percent during Bush's term, while non-defense discretionary spending has risen over 25 percent, outpaced only by Lyndon Johnson. Furthermore, the 0.5 percent cited is only a proposal, and we all know what happens to relatively restrained budget proposals when they get into the hands of Congress, especially a Congress of the same party as the president.
Notice, however, that the administration didn't mention either real or non-defense discretionary spending; instead, they used the vague, indeterminate term 'non-security discretionary spending.' What, exactly, does that mean? If we were dealing with normal (i.e., non-government) people, we'd have a pretty good idea what that means: defense, law enforcement, intelligence, etc. With government, on the other hand, it could mean something entirely different. In fact, as James Bovard points out in his book The Bush Betrayal, the Bush definition of security policy encompasses everything from farm subsidies to home mortgage assistance. Thus, it is not hard to see how one of the most free-spending administrations in history can nevertheless proclaim its fiscal responsibility in 'non-security' spending: Every dime Bush has spent since 9/11 qualifies as security spending.
Last, and certainly least, Bush takes credit'or at least implies that he deserves credit'for numerous cultural trends that just happen to have taken place while he was in office, including many that began well before he took office. Reduced smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use among teenagers; the declining divorce rate (which, the report notes, has been going on 'for more than a decade'); a reduction in the number of high school students having sex; increased home ownership; lower high school dropout rates; and reduced teen death rates are all, either directly or indirectly, attributed to George W. Bush. We should all be so grateful that this man is our president. Why, with results like this, it's a wonder he hasn't cured cancer and discovered the fountain of youth, too!
With this, Bush rests his case for reelection. A president elected as an avowed conservative has asked to be retained for another four years on the basis that he has betrayed nearly every principle on which he ran for office the first time. Talk about chutzpah! This guy has it all over ol' Bill Z. Bubb.
So, member of the board of the United States , will you vote to retain George W. Bush as president? If so, then I have another trustworthy, self-described Christian to recommend to you in 2008. Somehow I think he'll be available. The board of the First Baptist Church of Whatchacula, Pennsyltucky, isn't so easily deceived.