Fiscal Apocalypse Now

As support for President George W. Bush in the United States has crumbled over the past year, perhaps the most surprising element is the revolt of economists and observers of economic policy. Last week, Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for both President Reagan and the first President Bush declared in the Wall Street Journal that had she known what George W. Bush’s fiscal policy would be, she would have voted for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election.

“If I’d thought [that George W. Bush] was a big-spending Rockefeller Republican.... I wouldn’t have voted for him...,” Noonan wrote. Bush “did present himself as a conservative...[and] conservatism is hostile, for reasons ranging from the abstract and philosophical to the concrete and practical, to high spending and high taxing....” And then she falls into near-complete despair: “Mr. Bush will never have to run again, and he is in a position to come forward and make the case, even if only rhetorically, to slow and cut spending. He has not. And there’s no sign he will...”

Noonan is not quite correct. George W. Bush presented himself not as a normal conservative, but as something he called a “compassionate conservative,” thus preserving a certain amount of ambiguity. Some focused on the “conservative”: they expected the Bush administration’s fiscal policy to keep a tight rein on spending and to eliminate many programs in order to finance significant tax cuts.

Others focused on the “compassionate”: they expected Bush’s fiscal policy largely to eschew tax cuts and to adopt largely Democratic spending priorities, including expanded federal aid to education and a prescription drug benefit, thereby showing that Republicans could run a more cost-effective version of the social-welfare state. Still others interpreted “compassionate conservatism,” as the commentator Andrew Sullivan put it, as a “smokescreen...necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state.” They expected tax cuts to be followed by a fangs-bared attack on social-welfare spending once deficits reemerged.