Commentary

The Era of Big Government Conservatism

Limited government types were hoping against hope for red meat when they tuned into the president’s State of the Union speech. Instead, they ended up with thin gruel. Facing a half-a-trillion dollar deficit and a long-term fiscal crisis, President Bush could do no better than take aim at unspecified “wasteful spending.” The president, who hasn’t vetoed a single spending bill, used the occasion to issue a rare veto threat. Should Congress suddenly become bent on political suicide and decide to repeal the prescription-drug benefit it passed mere weeks ago, well then, by God, they could rest assured they’d face Bush’s veto pen. Talk about Profiles in Courage.

But none of this should be surprising. President Bush has demonstrated time and again that he does not share the small-government goals of the Goldwater-Reagan wing of the Republican Party. His record on spending and entitlements makes that abundantly clear.

Overall spending has increased twice as fast under George W. Bush as it did under Bill Clinton. And you can’t just chalk that up to the demands of the war on terror. Non-defense discretionary spending is up 24 percent over the first three years of the Bush administration. That’s a worse record than any president since Lyndon Johnson. The cabinet department whose budget grew the most under Bush isn’t the Pentagon-it’s Education, followed by Labor. The Department of Defense is fifth.

A recent Washington Post profile of conservative guru Grover Norquist describes Norquist asking the president’s OMB director for “talking points” to defend the president’s abysmal dreadful record on spending: “Norquist ventured politely: ‘Is there a single agency you want to get rid of? It would be really helpful for us to say, ‘This administration wants to get rid of [something].’” It’s pretty clear from the article that he didn’t get an answer.

How odd that Bill Clinton, that giant, walking appetite of a man, turned out to be a model of fiscal restraint, and George W. Bush, a teetotalling model of self-discipline in his personal life, turned out to be so profligate and irresponsible in fiscal policy.

It’s odd too, that it was George W. Bush, not Bill Clinton, who launched the biggest expansion of the Great Society in over 30 years. Medicare was already fiscally unsustainable, facing huge shortfalls as the baby boom generation begins to retire in 10 years. The new prescription drug benefit lauded by the president in the State of the Union will make a bad situation dramatically worse. The plan will supposedly “only” cost $400 billion over 10 years. But in its second decade, the plan could cost anywhere between $1.7 to $2 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Sen. Judd Gregg (R.-NH), who voted against the bill, called it “the largest tax increase that one generation has put on another generation in the history of the country.”

For years, various conservatives and neo-conservatives have been telling small-government activists to grow up and make their peace with the welfare state. George Will wrote a book called Statecraft as Soulcraft arguing, in part, that big government can be used to advance conservative social goals. David Brooks, with the Weekly Standard and New York Times, has called for a “National Greatness Conservatism” that recognizes that “ultimately, American purpose can find its voice only in Washington.”

That is the philosophy that guides this administration, as made clear by the stack of new “vision thing” initiatives announced by the president in recent weeks:

  • Doubling federal funding for abstinence programs
  • $1.5 billion for federal marriage counseling
  • $300 million on job training for ex-cons
  • Spending to encourage urine testing in public schools

Then there’s what might be termed the “spacecraft as soulcraft” part of the president’s agenda: a long-term moon base and what will prove to be an exorbitantly expensive manned mission to Mars.

There’s little evidence that the president recognizes the extent of the fiscal mess we’re in. There’s even less evidence that he recognizes any area of American life that should be free of government involvement. In his 1996 State of the Union address, then-President Bill Clinton famously declared that “the era of big government is over.” President Bush’s message for 2004 was less explicit, but just as direct: the era of big government conservatism has arrived.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute.