Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam clear away some of the cant on this issue. They’re right that Bush never promised to be a government-cutter, and they’re right that Republicans’ declining interest in cutting spending is a response to real political circumstances, not just a failure of will or corruption of intellect. They’re right, as well, that at his best Bush promised a “demand-side” reform of government that was probably the best way forward for conservatives in the circumstances of the time. They’re right, finally, that conservative voters are not much more interested in spending cuts than other voters.
But I have real disagreements with Douthat and Salam as well. It seems to me that they are much too generous about Bush’s generosity with taxpayer dollars here: “When you factor out spending on homeland security, domestic discretionary spending has barely budged under Bush” (their emphasis). I’m not sure that looking solely at domestic discretionary spending makes sense, especially given an administration that asked for, and received, a new entitlement program for prescription drugs for the elderly. In addition, depending on our purpose, we might want a yardstick that takes into account the possibility, even if it is a theoretical one, that domestic spending could be cut to make room for higher defense and security spending. But even ignoring those two caveats, I don’t think that the authors’ claim is true.
Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation has looked at domestic discretionary spending, excluding homeland-security spending, and he finds that it rose 40 percent between 2001 and 2006. (That’s 7 percent annually.) That’s more than it rose during Clinton’s entire eight years (39 percent, or 4.2 percent annually).
Douthat and Salam don’t spell out where they think that their critique of Bush, and their critique of the reigning conservative critique, ought to lead us, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it led them to some kind of refurbished big-government conservatism with which I would disagree. But I do think that they’re right to call into question the notion, peddled by too many conservatives, that all would be right with the world if only Bush had had a desire to cut spending, and the book they’re working on promises to be interesting.