It's no secret that President Bush tells lies. Bush whoppers are so frequent that an entire subgenre of political nonfiction was created to document them. It never seems to bother Bush or his White House when he's caught making stuff up, no doubt because the sort of people who get angry at his untruths weren't going to vote for him anyway. When Bush acknowledges these dustups at all, it's nearly always to mischaracterize them as mere difference of opinion. "My political enemies think the earth revolves around the sun," he'll say. "That's their prerogative. I happen to disagree."
But in his Feb. 9 Meet the Press interview, Bush told an entirely new sort of lie—one that may cause him a different sort of trouble than he's used to. The topic was "discretionary spending," which is Washington-ese for money that Congress appropriates directly, as opposed to "mandatory spending," which is made up of interest payments on government debt and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. Mandatory spending programs disburse money automatically according to formulas previously set by Congress. The majority of federal spending is mandatory spending. Discretionary spending accounts for only about one-third.
If you're serious about cutting federal spending—and almost nobody is—you need to go after the two biggest pots of money, Social Security and Medicare. But that's politically unpopular. The next biggest pot is the Pentagon. But in the post-9/11 world, that's even more unpopular. So most discussions about cutting federal spending focus on domestic discretionary spending, which accounts for only about one-fifth of the whole pie.
Those conservatives who sincerely believe that government needs to spend less—a small but important Republican constituency—are furious at Bush right now because he's increasing domestic discretionary spending more rapidly than Bill Clinton did. During his two terms in office, Clinton increased domestic discretionary spending by 10 percent. Bush, in not quite one full presidential term, has already increased domestic discretionary spending by 25 percent. This according to the White House's own budget charts! (The numbers are adjusted for inflation.)
Knowing this, it's all the more extraordinary that when Bush got asked about his spending habit on Meet the Press, this was his answer:
If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.
That isn't even close to being true. Under Bush, overall discretionary spending (i.e., with defense spending included) has increased every single year. It's now 31 percent higher than it was when Bush arrived.
But perhaps Bush meant to say, "domestic discretionary spending." Well, that, too, has increased every single year of Bush's presidency, and, as previously noted, is now 25 percent higher than it was when Bush arrived.
It seems almost gratuitous to add that in the last year of President Clinton's term, discretionary spending was up not 15 percent, but 3 percent, and that domestic discretionary spending was up not 15 percent, but 5 percent.
It should be obvious how the Meet the Press lie about spending differs from the usual Bush lie. He's lying to a different audience. Bush isn't gaslighting Democrats; although Democrats worry about deficits, they don't lose sleep over large increases in government spending. (Indeed, the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has lately been complaining that the spending increases projected in Bush's proposed 2005 budget aren't large enough.) To most Democrats, Bush's transparently false claim that he's cut discretionary spending will provoke at best mild academic interest.
Bush is gaslighting small-government Republicans. He's lying to the Heritage Foundation's Brian Riedl, who has observed that federal spending has grown twice as fast under Bush as it did under Clinton. He's lying to Paul Gigot, who edits the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, which says runaway spending is evidence that "the Republican imperium is starting to show signs of ideological dry rot." He's lying to Rush Limbaugh, who recently told his listeners that Bush hopes to soften "people's view of conservatism by making Americans work more for government and less for themselves," and that this strategy won't work. He's lying to Andrew Sullivan, the hawkish conservative blogger who's in utter despair over Bush's spending spree. He's lying, in short, to people who believe in him. Or rather, believed; Sullivan is drifting rapidly leftward and has already struck out at Bush's dishonesty on Meet the Press. If others follow, Bush could see serious erosion in his political base.
A more appalling possibility is that small-government conservatives won't complain about being lied to because they place loyalty above self-respect. Even before the Meet the Press interview, former Bush speechwriter David Frum was making excuses for spending increases under Bush. (Frum made his name with the 1994 book, Dead Right, which urged Republicans to regain their focus on reducing the size of government, but he's since decided that intellectual consistency must bow to the war on terrorism.) There was nothing about Bush's spending lie on the Journal editorial page today, and nothing in James Taranto's "Best of the Web" log on its Web site. The Weekly Standard's Web site hasn't weighed in, either. There's some grumbling about Bush's spending on National Review's "The Corner" Web log, but nowhere could I find the words, "lie," "false," "untrue," or "not true." Is it possible all these conservatives are going to take Bush's lie, er, lying down? Be warned, Republican brothers: Once Bush starts lying to you, he may never stop.