In his October 2006 essay in The Atlantic, “Unwinding Bush,” Jonathan Rauch wrote that the Bush legacy will include “four headaches” — including this one:
The fiscal mess. Bush’s tax cuts and spending increases turned a $236 billion federal surplus in fiscal 2000 into a deficit of more than $400 billion four years later, an astonishing reversal. That the current year’s deficit may come in at something like $300 billion is little cause for comfort; with Baby Boomers due to retire and an expensive Medicare drug benefit kicking in, the country’s fiscal position is weak.
It could be that Rauch’s effort to establish the Bush legacy more than two years before the Bush presidency was over was a wee bit premature. For example: We learned today that the budget deficit is now down to $163 billion and just 1.2 percent of the economy. As a percentage of the economy, the deficit is now lower than the average of the last 40 years. And the deficit as a percentage of the economy is considerably less than it was under President Reagan (when it reached 6.0 percent). And of course what Rauch failed to take into account is that the deficit in the Bush years can be explained in large measure because of (a) the dramatic stock-market decline in 2000; (b) the recession that soon followed (in early 2001); and (c) the attacks on September 11, which were a body blow to the economy (we lost a million jobs in 90 days).
On the matter of entitlements: President Bush is the only president in our lifetime to make a concerted effort at reforming a major entitlement (Social Security). Our fiscal situation regarding entitlements is worse in spite of his efforts, not because of them. Conservatives can only wish the GOP Congress had as much courage on this issue as the GOP president did.
On the matter of the Medicare prescription-drug benefits, it’s worth bearing in mind that Ronald Reagan — the most important conservative political figure in our lifetime and a man who belongs in the pantheon of great presidents — expanded the mandatory Social Security system with no reforms and enacted what at the times was the most dramatic expansion of Medicare coverage since its inception and included (in 1983) a complex system of price controls.
On the issue of the Medicare prescription-drug plan: It’s obviously a point of contention among conservatives. But clearly the program is working better, and at a lower cost, than most people anticipated. That’s because it was designed in a way that for the first time since the creation of Medicare introduces private sector competition and the right kinds of financial incentives to control costs. It’s a model that could do a lot of good for the rest of the Medicare program. Of course there has been much debate about whether any prescription drug coverage should have been added at all, but I would argue it was a necessary improvement to the Medicare system, which was designed before modern pharmaceuticals played a central role in staying healthy. As Newt Gingrich wrote at the time:
Does anyone believe it makes sense to pay billions for kidney dialysis and not pay for the preventive care drugs that lets people keep their kidneys healthy for only pennies per day?
And there is also this: the Health Savings Accounts that were part of the Medicare prescription drug legislation will, in my estimation, be seen by history (and future conservatives) as one of the key reforms in health care.
I hope at some point Jon Rauch, a bright and honest writer, will revisit this issue and concede that this particular Bush legacy, rather than being a “headache,” actually looks to be pretty impressive. And it might well turn out that this kind of thing isn’t restricted simply to the budget deficit. Legacies are tricky things to determine — particularly in advance.
– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.