President Bush walks onstage to speak about Social Security reform in Louisiana
Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
With his campaign to re-make Social Security, President Bush is forcing Democrats to defend their own turn, and perhaps distracting them from more urgent fiscal problems.
By contributor
updated 3/16/2005 1:11:58 PM ET 2005-03-16T18:11:58

Here’s a quick quiz on political labels for you junkies out there. Of the two major political parties, which one is spending money like water, creating new welfare entitlements, rapidly expanding the power of the federal government and launching idealistic wars of liberation around the globe?

For 60 years – from the dawn of the New Deal in 1933 to the advent of Hillary Healthcare in 1993 – the answer was the Democratic Party. But 1993 also was the year George W. Bush launched his national career (by running for governor of Texas). Now, 12 years later, we see the result: the Republicans are the party of deficit spending, entitlement expansion, Washington aggrandizement and Wilsonian crusades. They are presiding over the most vigorous enlargement of federal power and military involvement abroad since Lyndon Johnson unfurled the Great Society and plunged headlong into Vietnam.

Maybe there’s a big-government growth hormone in the artesian wells of Texas. Or maybe, as the writer Flannery O’Connor said, everything that rises must converge: meaning that every American governing party ultimately operates the same way to amplify its own political reach.

The corollary is that every party in eclipse operates the same way, too: crying havoc about deficits, threatening to shove sticks into the spinning spokes of government, waving the flag of states rights and attacking the ethics of leaders on the other side. That’s what Newt Gingrich’s GOP did when Bill Clinton was in power – and that is what Democrats are doing now. It didn’t really work for the GOP in the ‘90s, and I’m not sure it is going to work for the Democrats now because, to oversimplify only slightly, the GOP may not be conservatives anymore, but Democrats have lost their identity altogether. 

Turning tradition on its head?
Now for what we used to call the “to be sure” paragraphs. To be sure, some of the recent expansion of government is the unavoidable result of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Bush didn’t campaign in 2000 on a Patriot Act; he initially resisted creation of a Department of Homeland Security, which was a Democratic idea.

And, to be sure, Bush is dedicating 2005 to something old-fashioned, small-government conservative love: a frontal attack on the biggest governmental edifice of the New Deal, Social Security. But that may well be one reason why he’s doing it: to assuage conservative purists, not because he expects to get it done. (Campaigning for Social Security “reform” has other political benefits, such as forcing the Democrats to defend their home turf, and distracting attention from the country’s immediate, and more urgent, balance-sheet problems.)

But step back for a minute and consider the breathtaking scope of what Bush and his ruling party have wrought. The Leave No Child Behind Act is a bold assertion of federal power in what had (except for racial matters) been one of the last domains of local control, elementary and secondary education. The president’s recently enacted “tort reform,” a pet item of his for years, in essence preempts state courts from acting on many civil law suits, forcing them to be tried in federal courts. His energy proposals, yet to be enacted, do essentially the same thing, preempting the authority of state utility commissions. The Patriot Act, which Bush wants to expand, drains away much of the independent power of local and state police in the name of national coordination.

The cost of conservatism
To take a campaign issue off the table in 2003, the president agreed to a create a costly new welfare entitlement – a prescription-drug benefit – that is going to cost, by conservative estimates, at least twice as much as originally thought.

And now the government is expanding its role in the “news” business, doubling the amount even the often cynically manipulative Clinton Administration spent on video press releases and such. Talk about Big Government! If there is a cloakroom in Heaven, Senators Barry Goldwater and John C. Calhoun are livid that anyone is defending propaganda in the name of conservatism.

Even Bush’s Social Security reform proposal has an expansion of the role of Big Government buried within it. Under the plan, citizens would funnel portions of their payroll tax money into private accounts, which, in turn, would be managed en masse by private brokerage firms contracting with the government. What it really means is that Washington, already the main player in the bond market, will become a main conduit of cash into Wall Street – and where the money goes, more direct control is sure to follow. Think of the SEC on steroids. (By the way, brokerage firms are said to be wary of bidding on such contracts because profit margins would be too thin. Who are we kidding? Since when do federal contractors settle for unacceptable profit margins?)

As for the various deficits and debts – fiscal and trade, annual and total – the dismal numbers are familiar enough, with tides of red ink rising all around.

Democratic deficit hawks
When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan arrived on the Hill the other day, he was greeted by the new face of the Democratic Party: deficit hawk Hillary Rodham Clinton. The New York Senator made her policy-making debut in 1993 as the prime mover of one of the biggest Big Government proposals on record – Hillary Healthcare. Now she’s obsessed with the shrinking the federal deficit. So, too, are some of the party’s most creative, grassroots-oriented leaders. One of them is Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, who is making a crusade of his “pay-go” proposal, which would require Congress to raise taxes or cut spending to pay for any new program or tax cut it enacts. Not a bad idea – and one a conservative Republican might have been championing years ago.

The Democrats are delving into the Gingrich tactical playbook – and I’m not sure what they find is going to help them. Gingrich was obsessed with nailing House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas; Democrats are focused on Majority Leader Tom DeLay – of Texas. (What is it about Texas?!) But Wright’s ethical troubles weren’t the proximate cause of the Democrats loss of the House in 1994; President Clinton’s first term mistakes were.

And now the Democrats are threatening to shut down the government, or at least the Senate, if the GOP tries to jam judicial nominations through by overriding the filibuster rule. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid vows that the Senate will conduct no business . That’s an echo of the obstructionism Speaker Gingrich threw at Clinton in 1995 – which made the president look like a statesman by comparison, and all but insured Clinton’s re-election.     

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