....The proverbial elephant in the living room is the budgetary situation, which is going to make it very difficult for the next president to do much of anything that costs money.
....Both Republicans and Democrats have avoided dealing with this elephant because to seriously do so would require confronting a very unpleasant reality — that only massive spending cuts or tax increases can prevent a financial crisis.
....Both parties proceed with the delusion that relatively modest, and politically painless, fiscal adjustments can keep the government running. Democrats like to believe that the Bush tax cuts are all that is standing in the way of every policy they would like to see enacted. But even if all those tax cuts disappeared tomorrow, the money that would come in would provide only a drop in the bucket of what is needed to deal with looming fiscal problems.
....Republicans have their own delusions. To hear them talk, all we need to do to fix the budget is get rid of pork-barrel spending — perhaps by giving the president line-item veto power. But as a new report from Citizens Against Government Waste documents, this, too, would provide only a drop in the bucket. Getting rid of all pork-barrel projects in the federal budget would reduce spending by only $29 billion this year (a trivial amount in a $2.5 trillion budget). Moreover, as a recent Congressional Research Service report explains, the president doesn’t need a line-item veto to cut pork from the budget. He could, if he wanted, cancel 95 percent of earmarks today, because they are not actually line items in the budget. They are Congressional suggestions that he may ignore at will.
....We cannot avoid a future financial crisis just by raising taxes or by cutting spending. And we will get nowhere by avoiding the elephant of entitlements....I continue to believe that financial markets will one day wake up and notice the deficit. Like Claude Rains’s Capt. Renault in “Casablanca,” they will be “shocked, shocked” to discover this problem. But they could put irresistible pressure on both parties to act meaningfully. Whatever their public pronouncements today, Democrats and Republicans alike should be considering their bottom-line positions. When the markets finally react, whichever side is best prepared will have the greater chance of controlling the agenda and seeing its policies enacted.
....Most conservatives believe that the best way to downsize government is to take away its allowance, as Ronald Reagan once put it. In other words, tax cuts will lead to spending cuts. This is a theory I once subscribed to....Today, unfortunately, the evidence seems to point in exactly the opposite direction.
....In the 1980’s, there was some evidence that the starve-the-beast theory worked. Almost every year, budget deals cut spending a bit, although tax increases were always part of the mix. Ultimately, President Reagan supported tax increases that took back about half of his 1981 tax cut.
Nevertheless, the idea that tax cuts would downsize government became Republican dogma. Today, most Republicans in Congress view tax cuts as the only thing needed to reduce the size of government—and the connection between deficits and spending seems forgotten. Now Republicans raise spending and cut taxes at the same time.
As a consequence, the old starve-the-beast theory has been turned on its head. Economist Bill Niskanen of the Cato Institute has found that tax cuts now actually lead to spending increases. This suggests that higher taxes would reduce spending.
I think that higher taxes are inevitable, as I have explained in previous posts. If conservatives recognize this reality, perhaps they can force meaningful spending cuts as their price for supporting them. In any case, the starve-the-beast theory is as dead as the dodo.
....Whenever things are not working, the economic advisors seem to take most of the blame, while even dramatic failures by other staff members cause no repercussions. No one was fired for the prewar intelligence failures in Iraq. The person most to blame, George Tenet, the former Director of Central Intelligence, was given a medal. Michael Chertoff is still Secretary of Homeland Security even though his agency was responsible for many of the screw-ups related to Hurricane Katrina.
....Mr. Bush’s managerial style has been manifestly unsuccessful — the imploding of his Social Security reform effort is one example — yet there is no indication that he will change his approach. Indeed, it seems that Mr. Bolten’s main job will be to enforce even greater discipline....I have no doubt that Mr. Bolten will do his job with ruthless efficiency, for he is the truest of Mr. Bush’s true believers. I know this because I have observed it firsthand.
....A couple of years into the current administration, I saw him at a reception. I had just started writing some mildly critical things about some of Mr. Bush’s policies, like the Medicare drug program, which I thought was unaffordable. Up until that time, I had been almost entirely positive in my writings about the administration.
So I was taken aback when I went up to Mr. Bolten to say hello and he pointedly turned his back on me and walked away. I guess he thought he was punishing me for my criticism. All this did was confirm my growing belief that Mr. Bush would ultimately be a disaster for the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
The funny thing is that I was treated far better by Bill Clinton’s people while he was in office, even though I almost never had a good word to say about their positions. To their credit, they really believed in what they were doing and were almost evangelical in their desire to explain why it was right, even to Republicans like me who were unlikely to ever embrace their message. I have no doubt that if I had come across Gene Sperling, one of Clinton’s closest economic advisers, at such a reception, he would have come straight at me with a laundry list of facts and arguments for why I was wrong to be critical. I would have been invited to the White House mess to carry on the conversation, and I would have left with an armful of studies and statistics explaining the virtues of whatever Clinton program I was attacking.
By contrast, the Bush administration never provides its supporters with any ammunition to defend its positions, beyond the endless repetition of the day’s talking points. Even in Mr. Bush’s early days in the White House, when I was supporting the administration down the line and dealing with people I had known for years, I was never able to get anything substantive out them beyond the line of the day. I often had to do my own studies and crunch my own numbers to get evidence to support Mr. Bush’s policies.
So I see no reason to believe that anything substantive will change in this White House, no matter how many staff changes are made. This administration is like a gambler who doubles up after every losing hand in the vain hope of covering his losses. That strategy doesn’t work in Las Vegas, and it doesn’t work in Washington either.
....That’s not to say I would never vote for a Democrat. I have said on the record that if there were an election today between Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton, I would vote for Mr. Clinton. As I explain in my book, at least on economics, he had much better policies.
I believe that if Mr. Gore had simply run as if he would fulfill his predecessor’s third term, he would have won easily. That’s the strategy George H.W. Bush followed in 1988 and it worked brilliantly. Why Mr. Gore felt compelled to reinvent himself is a mystery to me.
....Some people now criticize me for not being more public with my criticism of Mr. Bush in 2004, when it might have done some good. But in fact, my columns at that time became much more critical and I was much less supportive of Mr. Bush in newspaper interviews and such. One interview in particular almost cost me my job.
An important factor in my alienation from Mr. Bush — which didn’t happen all at once — was reading Ron Suskind’s book, “The Price of Loyalty,” published in early 2004. Based on extensive interviews with former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, it painted a devastating portrait of a thoroughly dysfunctional administration.
Friday, April 14, 2006
Bruce Bartlett, former Reagan employee and recent GW critic, has been writing a pretty damn good blog over at the NY Times web site. I certainly don't agree with all of his points, but go ahead and read the many segments below -- he certainly has spit up much of the Kool Aid:
Posted by Grey Matter at 11:05 PM