The Magazine

Hey, Big Spenders!

Under Bush, the era of small government is over.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By FRED BARNES
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Bush faces two more factors that conflict with spending restraint--and both are partly of his own making. One is his strategy for reelection in 2004: lock up the conservative base and go after the political center. His tax cuts, conservative values, and strong position on national security appeal to his base. But spending programs--a prescription drug benefit, energy subsidies, a lavish farm bill--are the easiest way to woo swing voters and win swing states.

The other factor is the governing majority Bush sits atop. Governing majorities can't stand still. Nor can they merely slash spending and reduce the size of government. To remain in power, they have to act, legislate, cope with inevitable national problems. That's what the public expects. Sure, if Democrats manage to send Bush an expensive energy bill, he'll have no qualms vetoing it. But veto a Republican bill that boosts Republican-leaning constituencies linked with his governing majority and affecting voter sentiment in key states? No way. Republican spending gets a pass, a cheer even.

The White House is feeling the pain of small government conservatives. One indication is the stress Bush aides put on the lowest spending figure, the one that leaves out defense, homeland security, and supplemental expenditures. Another is the White House's eagerness for a budget fight with Congress next year, with Bush leading the spend-less side. And the president intends to tout Social Security reform in his reelection campaign, arguing among other things that it's the only way to stem out-of-control spending on benefits. Will this strategy appease conservatives and thwart Democratic attempts to characterize him as fiscally reckless? Probably.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.