Friday, August 22, 2003

George Bush: The Economist has buyer's remorse? | Lexington

The Economist was infatuated with George Bush. Before his election they were uncritical cheerleaders, after his "victory" they sang his praises. By the end of year one they seemed a bit nervous. By July of this year, it looks like they've got buyer's remorse. In this July 5th column by Lexington they even praise Clinton. Emphases mine.

... These [medicare] bills point to two conclusions that are worth pondering by people who don't give a fig about co-payments. The first is that the Republicans are mighty shrewd when it comes to short-term political manoeuvring. The second is that they are almost completely indifferent to the basic principles of sound finance...

... Republicans are already bragging that Mr Bush's embrace of Medicare reform is the same as Bill Clinton's embrace of welfare reform back in 1996 -- manoeuvre that magically transforms a liability into a strength.

There is, however, one tiny difference. Welfare reform was an admirable policy that led to a sharp reduction in welfare rolls. Medicare reform is lousy policy. The Republicans have given up any pretence of using the new drug benefit as a catalyst for structural reform. They are doing nothing to control costs or to target government spending on people who really need it. They are merely creating a vast new entitlement programme -- programme that will put further strain on the federal budget at just the moment when the baby boomers start to retire.

This might be tolerable if the Medicare boondoggle were an isolated incident. But it is par for the course for this profligate president. Every year Mr Bush has either produced or endorsed some vast new government scheme: first education reform, then the farm bill, now the prescription-drug benefit. And every year he has missed his chance to cut federal pork or veto bloated bills.

As Veronique de Rugy of the Cato Institute points out, federal spending has increased at a hellish 13.5% in the first three years of the Bush administration ("he is governing like a Frenchman"). Federal spending has risen from 18.4% of national income in 2000 to 19.9% today. Combine this profligacy with huge tax cuts, and you have a recipe for deficits as far ahead as the eye can see...

... Mr Bush seems to have no real problem with big government; it is just big Democratic government he can't take. One-party rule, which was supposed to make structural reform easier, also looks ever less savoury. Without a Congress that will check their excesses, the Republicans, even under the saintly Dr Frist, have reverted to type: rewarding their business clients, doling out tax cuts and ignoring the fiscal consequences.

This opportunism may win Mr Bush re-election next year, but sooner or later it will catch up with his party at the polls. The Republicans are in danger of destroying their reputation for managing the economy -- something that matters enormously to the "Daddy Party" (which sells itself as being strong on defence and money matters). The Democrats can point out that Bill Clinton was not only better at balancing the budget than Mr Bush. He was better at keeping spending under control, increasing total government spending by a mere 3.5 % in his first three years in office and reducing discretionary spending by 8.8%.

The Republican Party's conservative wing stands to lose the most from this. Some conservatives credit Mr Bush with an ingenious plan to starve the government beast: the huge tax cuts will eventually force huge spending cuts. But this is rather like praising an alcoholic for his ingenious scheme to quit the bottle by drinking himself into bankruptcy...

I'd say the love affair may be over.

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