Ten days ago I compiled a roundup of reactions to President Bush's "second Louisiana Purchase" speech
from across the center-right spectrum. Feedback was mixed, but roughly divisible into two camps.
There were the ideological conservatives, bluntly exemplified by NRO's T.J. Walker
Bush ignored the concepts of individual accountability and responsibility in his speech. In the Bush world, his new moral relativism makes no distinctions between those who bought flood insurance and those who didn't; those who choose to live in safe mountains high above sea level and those who build below sea level in flood zones predicted by every expert to be washed away. Bush's message was redistributionist, collectivist, and nannist. Individuals bear no responsibility for their misfortunes or for their own recovery. Any conservative with third grade math skills or beyond could smell trillions of dollars of budget deficit flowing out of Bush's mouth.
Arrayed against them were the political conservatives, best symbolized by Rush Limbaugh
What the President did last night, I think a lot of you have a view that this was, "Okay, the President said to hell with conservatism and it's over with." He didn't do that. If you just look at the total amount of money being spent and you listen to the ways you hear it being spent, you might think, "Oh, God, we're just chucking it," but we're not. I think a subtitle of what the President's speech last night was could be this: Okay, libs, we've tried it your way for 60 years and now we're going to try it our way. He was talking about enterprise zones, school vouchers, turning renters into owners, rebuilding this place without rebuilding slums. They're not going to rebuild it the way it was with the same architecture and the same structure politically and everything else. It is a pretty decent opportunity here. [emphasis added]
As I wrote about my own feelings, I was, and am, conflicted:
I think what we got from the President is pretty much what I expected. And while my heart is with T.J. Walker, my head recalls Otto Von Bismarck's famous 1867 pronouncement: "Politics is the art of the possible."
As a relentless practicalist, that latter factor seems paramount to me. For example, a federal statute enacted in the late '80s called the Stafford Act requires the federal government to pick up at least three-quarters of the tab for disaster relief in which federal assistance has been requested and granted. This is what political conservatives are pointing to as cover for the enormous gusher of federal spending spraying out all over the Gulf Coast to rebuild after Katrina and Rita.
Now the ideological conservative in me reasons straightforwardly that (1) statutes can be repealed as well as enacted, (2) Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Executive, and therefore (3) just repeal the Stafford Act, cut off the spending spigots, and let the private sector and state and local governments fend for themselves, just as Grover Cleveland used to do once upon a time.
That would be the best medicine for all parties involved in the long run. But the political conservative in me knows it's a pipedream. Not even Newt Gingrich and his 1994 "revolutionaries" would have dared take such a stand for fiscal responsibility. And nobody, not even the most rock-ribbed right-wing critic of this domestic Marshall plan, is suggesting any such thing. It's just not politically feasible.
Perhaps if the ideological conservatives were going that far, it would be easier to dismiss them as out of touch with reality. But they are, in fact, being eminently reasonable. They're not really disputing the proposed expenditure of this $100-200 billion bones. What they're arguing is that these appropriations not be larded atop the existing budget, but rather offset with cuts elsewhere that, in an overall total of approximately $2.8 TRILLION
, oughtn't be that difficult to find.
However, congressional Republicans, particularly the leadership in both houses, who can scarcely be described as conservative at all anymore, at least fiscally, are proving to be as stubbornly profligate as the Donks they replaced over a decade ago, and President Bush isn't exactly providing what anybody would recognize as Reaganian leadership himself.
Hence the avalanche of center-right op-ed headlines, of which this is but a sample:
The GOP's new "New Deal"
We're All in the Same Bloat
The End of Small Government
Is Bush's big spending a bridge to nowhere?
Rohrabacher: President Bush is No Reagan Conservative
Is this the end of “compassionate conservatism”?
Pork or hurricane relief?
Politicians not giving us much of a choice
Stuck on stupid
GOP in Turmoil
GOP Leaders are naked
Republicans barely even try to control spending
A Flood of Free Money
Big Government De Ja Vu
The aforelinked Deroy Murdock effortlessly compiled a long shopping list of ample cuts that nobody outside the Beltway would miss:
Since the "Republican Revolution" of 1994, domestic discretionary spending has grown from $259 billion to $466 billion, an annual average of 5.5%, Cato Institute scholar Stephen Slivinski calculates. Under President Bush, this figure has accelerated 8% per annum, on average, far ahead of inflation.
On President Clinton's watch, the 1998 highway bill groaned under some 1,850 pork-barrel items. The 2005 highway bill, written and signed by Republicans, virtually suffocated beneath 6,371 fishy projects (including $2.5 million for the Blue Ridge Music Center), a 244% increase in fiduciary recklessness. This year's federal budget, Citizens Against Government Waste reports, featured 13,997 pork-barrel items, 31% more than in last year's spending plan!
Consider the disgraceful $223 million bridge between Ketchikan, Alaska, and Gravina Island — Population: 50. This equals $4.46 million per capita. Obscene? This is fiscal pornography. $223 million very generously could grant 892 storm-swept families $250,000 to rebuild or relocate....
On spending, the Republican Congress routinely exhibits the maturity and self-restraint of infants screaming for their pacifiers. From $1.4 million for the Ted Stevens International Airport (named after Alaska's Republican senior senator) to $50 million for a 4.5-acre, 20-story-high, indoor rainforest in Coralville, Iowa championed by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), no program is too extravagant or exotic to be left behind. Appropriations are limited only by legislators' imaginations and their brazen disregard for the commonweal....
According to columnist Robert Novak, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), a fiscal hawk, discovered that shoddy accounting generated $41.5 billion in federal overpayments.
And that doesn't even mention the idea, which I think could be sold, of delaying - not repealing, but just delaying - the prescription drug boondoggle by a year.
A group of genuinely conservative House back-benchers called the Republican Study Committee
has come up with a plan of spending reduction offsets, dubbed (naturally) Operation Offset
, to help pay for hurricane relief. It comprises 122 ideas to save taxpayers $139 billion in 2006 alone, and $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. These include the aforementioned delay of the new, universal Medicare prescription-drug benefit, ditching highway pork projects, and dumping corporate and farm welfare programs.
Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN) told a Capitol Hill press conference, "We're anticipating growing enthusiasm of the American people for offsetting these costs and sharpening our pencils...to find these cuts."
"The American people" did not include the House GOP leadership, which stopped just short of having the RSC arrested
for fiscal treason:
Asked to respond to critics who have urged him to reallocate this notorious bridge's budget to Katrina's victims, GOP Congressman Don Young, chairman of the 75-member House Transportation Committee, said: "They can kiss my ear!" He added: "That is the dumbest thing I ever heard." He also explained that Louisiana already received substantial money in the highway bill and that he helped generate $500,000 in Katrina relief at "the Seafood Invitational," a Roslyn, Washington golf tournament. "I raised enough money to give back to them voluntarily," Young said, "and that's it!"
Young was far from the only one
paddling RSC ass:
Pence was far more discreet in Tuesday's session with his party's leadership, but that did not save him a going over, led by two powerful committee chairmen: Representative Don Young (Transportation Committee) and Representative Bill Thomas (Ways and Means Committee). The harshest treatment of Pence, however, was administered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who does not like his rank-and-file members depicting a free-spending Republican Party. [emphasis added]
One wants to grab DeLay by the lapels and scream into his ashen face, "41 f'ing states are getting 'hurricane relief,' Congressman!!! Katrina and Rita affected FOUR! Count 'em, FOUR!!!"
And he thinks that the public at large isn't already seeing the GOP as "free-spending"? Good God, even the Democrats recognize this opportunity
Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said the House [Minority] leader, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has been at the forefront of cutting pork barrel spending, giving back $70 million from the highway bill to help with hurricane relief efforts.
"Eleven years ago we never expected this would be the case. Many people now long for a divided government because that may be what it takes to get more responsibility," said Schatz.
Nancy Pelosi has gotten to House Republicans' fiscal right. Nancy f'ing Pelosi
. How's that make you feel, Mr. House Majority Leader? The term "stuck on stupid" comes to mind.
Does she mean it? Of course not. But if even that empty-headed a moron can see the convergence of ideological and political conservatism and the political hay to be made off of it, elected 'Pubbies had better believe that their own base is seeing it
According to Rasmussen Reports, only 43% of self-identified conservatives support a spending spree along the Gulf Coast, while 37% are opposed. (Rasmussen found 50% support for the proposal overall.) "This is especially striking given how supportive the President's base has remained throughout his Administration," says Rasmussen. As of [last Thursday], Rasmussen showed 47% job approval for the President and 52% disapproval.
The next day it was down another point to 46%, which matches almost exactly the drop in Bush's approval number amongst Republicans (from 91% in July to 77% now). This ought to be ominous for the White House, because its entire political strategy since day one has been predicated on keeping the GOP base locked up airtight. Nettlesome issues like overspending and immigration have always had the potential to blow that political capital "lockbox" wide open, and for four and a half years the Bushies successfully whistled past that graveyard.But no longer
President Bush is in a perilous political state. His slipping poll numbers are partly a result of softening support from his Republican base. If Bush doesn't take decisive steps to try to offset the billions of new Katrina spending, the forecast will be: Danger, more softening ahead. Never in the Bush years has conservative discontent been so high, nor so justified. With a few false moves in the crucial weeks ahead, Bush could see even more of the life-blood squeezed from his presidency.
We all know the litany that got us to this point: Bush has never vetoed a congressional spending bill, even as Congress has agreed to fund an estimated 14,000 pork projects, up from around 1,000 in 1996; he has presided over a federal spending increase of 33% since 2001, with 55% of the increase in the last two years unrelated to defense, according to Brian Reidl of the Heritage Foundation; and he created a new entitlement, signing a $500 billion prescription-drug bill.
Conservatives could just manage to swallow all this, when there was the prospect of Social Security reform changing the politics of the nation's most important entitlement. Now, the Katrina aftermath appears to have driven a stake through the already doubtful Social Security reform, while slathering on ever more federal spending in response to the disaster. The turn of events casts all that has come before in an even worse light, and makes Bush fiscal mismanagement looks increasingly intolerable to conservatives.
And if the RSCers are correct in their worries, there could be even worse to come
The beleaguered conservatives see all this spending leading inexorably to a tax increase, which would redistribute the tax burden to the disadvantage of the successful and threaten an economic recession. Barry Goldwater long ago assailed Dwight D. Eisenhower for presiding over a "Dime Store New Deal." That stinging rebuke no longer would be appropriate for today's Republicans. They outdo Democrats on pork and are in the same ballpark on entitlements. Even Katrina and now Rita do not restrain them.
Would a Republican Congress actually commit such fiscal and political suicide? Well, who would have thought that a Republican Congress would make its Dem predecessors look like skinflints? And while the President has ruled out any tax increases, remember that he promised to veto the highway bill at one time, too, and that never materialized.
The other, perhaps slightly more likely alternative outcome is that Republicans lose control of Congress next year and a Democrat-dominated successor does the tax-hiking honors, perhaps with a sufficient number of RINO defections to override a Bush veto, if he managed to finally muster one up. And what will Pachyderms be able to say? They're the ones running up this stupendous tab; they're the ones telling their own supporters with reasonable fiscal concerns that they themselves once championed to kiss their asses. Democrats would simply be assuming the role of "tax collectors for the GOP welfare state". The difference is they'd consider it to be a compliment.
Make no mistake about this: I am not urging GOP voters to hold their nose and keep supporting the party anyway or to flip 'em the bird and stay home in November 2006. I am simply saying what a lot of GOP voters will do. Whenever the base perceives that its elected officerholders have strayed from the faith and stopped listening to them, it will punish them regardless of the political cost. It happened across the board in 1998 over Republican reluctance to impeach Bill Clinton and on the Senate side in 2000 for its failure to convict him. If GOP leaders keep copping this appallingly arrogant attitude they'll take a whupping from their own supporters yet again, mark my words.
Mr. Murdock sounds the warning
Reaganites like Jeff Flake, Mike Pence, and Tom Coburn should constitute the congressional leadership. Tom DeLay, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) are spending money at a pace that eclipses Democratic congresses. And, maddeningly, President Bush recoils from his veto pen like a vampire running from garlic. A dash of adult supervision could restrain his party's juvenile delinquency. Alas, Bush naps upstairs while the kids trash the living room.
"Operation Offset" and the true believers behind it are the honorable exception. But as a rule, Washington's GOP leadership is a collective embarrassment to the party of Lincoln and the republic he preserved.
This is more than just discontent, folks. And it doesn't look at all compatible with continued Republican hegemony.
'Pubbies have a little over thirteen months to fix this problem. If they know what's good for them, and wish to keep possession of their gavels and the perqs that go with them, they'd better stop acting like Democrats (in more ways than one) and return to the principles that got them there. Otherwise they'll find themselves back in the political wilderness, this time with nobody to rescue or even listen to them.
Or even a bridge.
UPDATE 9/28: Here
's a bit more on the prescription drug boondoggle - and you'd better be sitting down for this:
Here are the facts as reported by the Social Security and Medicare actuaries earlier this year: The unfunded liability of Social Security in perpetuity is $11.1 trillion. The unfunded liability of Medicare is $68.1 trillion, of which $18.2 trillion is accounted for by the recently enacted drug benefit.
In short, even if President Bush had been successful in enacting a perfect Social Security reform bill, one that completely eliminated that program’s unfunded liability, we would still be $7 trillion worse off as a result of the extraordinarily ill-considered drug benefit. To put it another way, we could repeal the drug benefit, finance Social Security forever with no benefit cuts or tax increases, and still cut $7 trillion off our national indebtedness.
No wonder the President had so little credibility when he was out on the hustings flogging Social Security reform earlier this year. And to think that a repeal of the drug benefit is the thing that draws his veto threat.
If he was finally going to own up to a mistake, why couldn't it have been this one instead of FEMA's phantom foul-ups. At least the prescription drug boondoggle is real, and his.