Bush Was a Statist, Not a Conservative

A former White House speechwriter, Mark Thiessen, has jumped to the defense of his former boss, writing for the Washington Post that George W. Bush “established a conservative record without parallel.” Even by the loose standards of Washington, that is a jaw-dropping assertion. I’ve been explaining for years that Bush was a big-government advocate, even writing a column back in 2007 for the Washington Examiner pointing out that Clinton had a much better economic record from a free-market perspective. I also groused to the Wall Street Journal the following year about Bush’s dismal performance.

“Bush doesn’t have a conservative legacy” on the economy, said Dan Mitchell, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Tax-rate reductions are the only positive achievement, and those are temporary … Everything else that has happened has been permanent, and a step toward more statism.” He cited big increases in the federal budget, along with continuing subsidies in agriculture and transportation, new Medicare drug benefits, and increased federal intervention in education and housing.

Let’s review the economic claims in Mr. Thiessen’s column. He writes:

The thrust of their argument is that Bush expanded the size of government dramatically – and they are absolutely right. Federal spending grew significantly on Bush’s watch, and this is without question a black mark on his record. (Federal spending also grew dramatically under Ronald Reagan, though he was dealt a Democratic Congress, whereas Bush had six years of Republican leadership on Capitol Hill.)

Since federal spending almost doubled in Bush’s eight years, it’s tempting to summarily dismiss this assertion, but let’s cite a few additional facts just in case someone is under the illusion that Bush was on the side of taxpayers. And let’s specifically compare Bush to Reagan since Mr. Thiessen seems to think they belong in the same ball park. This article by Veronique de Rugy is probably a good place to begin since it compares all Presidents and shows that Bush was a big spender compared to Reagan…and to Clinton. Chris Edwards has similar data, capturing all eight years of Bush’s tenure. But the most damning evidence comes from the OMB’s Historical Tables, which show that Reagan reduced both entitlements and domestic discretionary spending as a share of GDP during his two terms.  Bush (and I hope nobody is surprised) increased the burden of spending in both of these categories.That’s the spending side of the ledger. Let’s now turn to tax policy, where Thiessen writes:

Bush enacted the largest tax cuts in history – and unlike my personal hero, Ronald Reagan, he never signed a major tax increase into law.

Using the most relevant measures, such as changes in marginal tax rates or comparing the impact of each President’s tax changes on revenues as a share of GDP, Bush’s tax cuts are far less significant than the Reagan tax cuts. But there presumably is some measure, perhaps nominal revenues over some period of years, showing the Bush tax cuts are larger, so we’ll let that claim slide. The more relevant issue to address is the legacy of each President. Reagan did sign several tax increases after his 1981 Economic Recovery Tax Act, but the cumulative effect of those unfortunate compromises was relatively modest compared to the positive changes in his first year. When he left office, he bequeathed to the nation a tax code with meaningful and permanent tax rate reductions. The Bush tax cuts, by contrast, expire at the end of this year, and virtually all of the pro-growth provisions will disappear. This doesn’t mean Bush’s record on taxes was bad, but it certainly does not compare to the Gipper’s. But what about other issue, such as trade? Thiessen writes:

Bush enacted free-trade agreements with 17 nations, more than any president in history.

Those are some positive steps, to be sure, but they are offset by the protectionist moves on steel and lumber. I’m not a trade expert, so I don’t know if Bush was a net negative or a net positive, but at best it’s a muddled picture and Thiessen certainly did not present the full story. And speaking of sins of omission, his section on health care notes:

Bush created Health Savings Accounts – the most important free-market health-care reform in a generation. And he courageously stood up to Congressional Democrats when they sought to use the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) to nationalize health care – and defeated their efforts.

Conveniently missing from this analysis, though, is any mention of the utterly irresponsible prescription drug entitlement. There is no doubt that Bush’s net impact on health care was to saddle America with more statism. Indeed, I’d be curious to see some long-run numbers on the impact of Bush’s prescription drug entitlement and the terrible plan Obama just imposed on America. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the negative fiscal impact of both plans was comparable. Shifting gears, let’s now turn to education policy, where Thiessen writes:

Bush won a Supreme Court ruling declaring school vouchers constitutional and enacted the nation’s first school-choice program in the District of Columbia.

Bush deserves some credit on school choice, but his overall education record is characterized by more spending and centralization. Thanks in part to his no-bureaucrat-left-behind plan, the budget for the Department of Education grew significantly and federal spending on elementary, secondary, and vocational education more than doubled. Equally worrisome, federal bureaucrats gained more control over education policy. Finally, Thiessen brags about Bush’s record on Social Security reform:

Bush fought valiantly for a conservative priority no American president had ever dared to touch: Social Security reform, with private accounts that would have given millions of our citizens a stake in the free market system. His effort failed, but he deserves credit from conservatives for staking his second term in office on this effort.

This is an area where the former President does deserve some credit. So even though the White House’s failure to ever put forth a specific proposal was rather frustrating, at least Bush did talk about real reform and the country would be better off today if something had been enacted.

This addresses all the economic claims in Thiessen’s article, but we can’t give Bush a complete grade until we examine some of the other issues that were missing from the column. On regulatory issues, the biggest change implemented during the Bush year was probably Sarbanes-Oxley – a clear example of regulatory overkill. Another regulatory change, which turned out to be a ticking time bomb, was the expansion of the “affordable-lending” requirements for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

And speaking of Fannie and Freddie, no analysis of Bush’s record would be complete without a discussion of bailouts. Without getting too deep in the issue, the most galling part of what Bush did was not necessarily recapitalizing the banking system (a good chunk of which was required by government deposit insurance anyhow), but rather the way it happened. During the savings & loan bailout 20 years ago, at least incompetent executives and negligent shareholders were wiped out. Government money was used, but only to pay off depositors and/or to pay healthy firms to absorb bankrupt institutions. Bush and Paulson, by contrast, exacerbated all the moral hazard issues by rescuing the executives and shareholders who helped create the mess. Last but not least, let’s not forget that Bush got the ball rolling on auto-industry bailouts.

If all of this means Bush is a “conservative record without parallel,” then Barack Obama must be the second coming of Ronald Reagan.