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:
Scary news today
from Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker: despite losing his reelection bid in 2006, former senator Rick Santorum is still thinking about running for president. He tells Parker that he represents the Ronald Reagan issue trinity: the economy, national security and social conservatism. And he's the limited-government guy:
Both pro-life and pro-traditional family, Santorum is an irritant to many. But he insists that such labels oversimplify. Being pro-life and pro-family ultimately mean being pro-limited government.
When you have strong families and respect for life, he says, "the requirements of government are less. You can have lower taxes and limited government."
But Santorum is no Reaganite when it comes to freedom and limited government. He told NPR in 2005:
One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.
He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, . . . this idea that people should be left alone.” Andrew Sullivan directed our attention to a television interview in which the senator from the home state of Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson denounced America’s Founding idea of “the pursuit of happiness.” If you watch the video, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness . . . and it is harming America.”
Parker says that Santorum is "sometimes referred to as the conscience of Senate Republicans." Really? By whom? Surely not by Reaganites, or by people who believe in limited government.
While perusing the Internet, I saw an article by Iwan Morgan, who is the author of The Age of Deficits: Presidents and unbalanced Budgets from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. The author asserted in this article that, "The deficit explosion on his watch was a nasty surprise for Ronald Reagan not a deliberate strategy to reduce government. In his rosy interpretation of Laffer curve theory, the personal tax cuts he promoted in 1981 would deliver higher not lower revenues through their boost to economic growth."
The first sentence is an interesting interpretation, since many leftists believe that Reagan deliberately created deficits to make it more difficult for Democrats in Congress to increase spending. I'm agnostic on that issue, but Morgan definitely errs (or is grossly incomplete) in the second sentence. The Reagan Administration did not employ dynamic scoring when predicting the revenue impact of its tax rate reductions. It is true that the White House failed to predict the drop in revenues, particularly in 1982, but that happened because of both the second stage of the 1980-82 double-dip recession and the unexpected drop in inflation (the Congressional Budget Office also failed to predict both of these events, so Reagan's forecasters were hardly alone in their mistake). Moreover, Morgain's dismissal of the Laffer Curve is unwarranted. While several GOP politicians exaggerated the relationship between tax rates, taxable income, and tax revenue, this does not mean it does not exist.
The table below, which is based on data from the IRS's Statistics of Income, shows what happened to tax collections from upper-income taxpayers between 1980 and 1988. Supply siders can be criticized for many things, especially their apparent disregard for the importance of limiting the size of government, but the IRS figures clearly show that lower tax rates were followed by more rich people, more taxable income, and more tax revenue. For those keeping score at home, that's a perfect batting average for supply-side economics.
This is from the Reagan administration's deregulatory 1981 energy plan: "All Americans are involved in making energy policy. When individual choices are made with a maximum of personal understanding and a minimum of government restraints, the result is the most appropriate energy policy."
Many modern Republicans claim devotion to Ronald Reagan's ideas, but they often seem to forget about the "minimum of government" thing. The following points are from Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell's "More Energy, More Jobs" plan:
- "McDonnell was the chief sponsor of legislation creating the Virginia Hydrogen Energy Plan."
- "McDonnell also supported grant programs for solar photovoltaic manufacturing, tax exemptions for solar energy and recycling property, and tax credits for solar energy equipment."
- "In order to protect Virginia’s citizens from the skyrocketing wholesale prices of electricity seen in other states, McDonnell brought together all the necessary stake holders to re-regulate electricity in Virginia."
- "Currently, Virginia is the second largest importer of electricity behind California. This is unacceptable."
- "Bob McDonnell will establish Virginia as a Green Jobs Zone to incentivize companies to create quality green jobs. Qualified businesses would be eligible to receive an income tax credit equal to $500 per position created per year for the first five years."
- "The Virginia Alternative Fuels Revolving Fund was established to assist local governments that convert to alternative fuel systems . . . Bob McDonnell will expand the purpose of this fund to include infrastructure such as refueling stations, provide seed money and aggressively pursue additional grants."
- "Bob McDonnell will make Southwest and Southside Virginia the nation’s hub for traditional and alternative energy research and development...To assist with the attraction, building and operation of major energy facilities in Southside and Southwest Virginia, we will also support the establishment of the Center for Energy."
- "To help Virginia universities gain access to federal stimulus money, as Governor, Bob McDonnell will establish the Virginia Universities Clean Energy Development and Economic Stimulus Foundation."
- "As Governor, Bob McDonnell will leverage stimulus funding to incentivize individuals and businesses to conduct energy audits and encourage public private partnerships between small businesses and government."
It's true that McDonnell's plan has some free market elements, and also that Ronald Reagan supported some wasteful energy boondoggles. However, the degree to which the modern Republican wants to micromanage and manipulate the energy industry is remarkable. McDonnell is almost setting out a Soviet five-year plan for a substantial part of the Virginia economy. For goodness sakes, he wants to treat Virginia like a separate country and try to fix the supposed problem that it is "importing" too much energy from other states!
It's not just energy. Look at the top-down central planning ideas that McDonnell has for "creating jobs":
Glenn Greenwald, author of Cato's much-discussed paper on the success of drug decriminalization in Portugal, writes about cults of presidential personality. He notes that Jay Nordlinger of National Review and other conservatives -- not to mention a few libertarians -- have criticized the Obama administration's plan to broadcast a presidential speech into American schools and push teachers to post Obama quotes in their classrooms and encourage students to talk about how President Obama inspires them.
Greenwald never actually defends the Obama plan. But he does argue that conservatives have short memories when they say that this is something unique. In particular, he reminds us of the notorious Monica Goodling's questions to job candidates at the George W. Bush Department of Justice, such as "[W]hat is it about George W. Bush that makes you want to serve him?" And also of White House political aide Sara Taylor, who told the Senate Judiciary Committee, "I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously." Committee chairman Patrick Leahy had to ask her, "Did you mean, perhaps, you took an oath to the Constitution?"
Greenwald has a good point. Both the red and blue teams have been far too quick to succumb to a cult of presidential personality. (And really, swooning over Reagan or Obama is sort of understandable. But George W. Bush? You have to wonder if they worked really hard at creating a Bush cult because there wasn't really much there.)
But I do see one difference: The Obama administration is trying to push its president-worship onto 50 million captive schoolchildren (not to mention using the NEA to enlist the nation's artists in promoting Obama and his agenda). Goodling was asking people looking for government jobs why they wanted to "serve George W. Bush." Now, sure, they should want to serve the public interest -- and she was asking these questions to people seeking career legal positions as well as to political appointees. Still, it seems a smaller bit of cultishness than going into every public school.
Gene Healy wrote about cultishness by both Bush and Obama supporters here.
- Nearly 30 European countries have agreed to end their government mail monopolies in the next five years. The U.S. Postal Service has estimated losses of $7 billion this year. It's time to privatize.
- If you are curious about how President Barack Obama's health plan would affect your health care, look no further than Massachusetts. You might not like what you find.
- How the outcome of the health care debate will affect our greatest liberty — life.
- Keep an eye on the troubling voting procedures in Europe.
- Podcast: The Age of Reagan
As I note in my New York Post op-ed today, Republicans are fond of implying that President Obama is a big-spending socialist. But the House GOP recently offered a spending cut plan that was able to find savings worth less than one percent of Obama's budget.
As Tad DeHaven and Brian Riedl have also pointed out, the GOP spending reform effort is rather pathetic. It proposed specific annual budget cuts of about $14 billion per year.
Consider that the center-left budget wonks at the Brookings Institution put their heads together a few years ago and came up with a "smaller government plan" that proposed about $342 billion in annual spending cuts (by 2014). The Brookings authors note:
These cuts are achieved by reducing government subsidies to commercial activities ($138 billion); by returning responsibility for education, housing, training, environmental, and law enforcement programs to the states ($123 billion) . . . by cutting entitlements such as Medicaid, Social Security, and Medicare ($74 billion); and by eliminating some wasteful spending in these entitlement programs ($7 billion).
Thus, the Brooking's scholars found cuts more than twenty times larger than the House GOP leadership cuts, and Brookings proposed its plan back when the deficit was about one-fifth of the size it is today. (Note that both the Brookings and GOP plans would also put a cap on overall nondefense discretionary spending, in addition to these specific cuts).
My point in the New York Post piece is that the GOP needs to challenge Obama's big spending agenda at a more fundamental level. They need to do some careful research, pick out some big spending targets, and go on the offense. Why not propose to eliminate the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development? Why not sell off federal assets, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, in order to help pay down the federal debt? Why not open up the U.S. Postal Service to competition?
Obama won't agree to these reforms at this point, but they would hopefully open a serious national debate about reforming our massive and sprawling federal government. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the congressional Republicans in 1994 didn't win by splitting hairs with the Democrats over 1% of spending. They offered a more fundamental critique.
At least, GOP leaders need to offer up spending reforms as bold as those of the Brookings Institution.