Fred Barnes channels Ari Fleischer.

Media criticism.
Jan. 18 2002 4:29 PM

Barnes' Door Open

Who needs Ari Fleischer when we can read Fred Barnes each week?

Last month (Dec. 24), conservative pundit Fred Barnes attacked Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the Weekly Standard as being partisan. He accused Daschle of "crass maneuvering" and having "intervened to upset bipartisan cooperation." The next week in the Standard (Dec. 31), Barnes explained how Republicans managed to win the war of public relations over the stimulus battle by "[rallying] the entire GOP apparatus in Washington to serve as a Greek chorus, chanting monotonously that Daschle is an obstructionist, who is blocking legislation for crude partisan reasons."

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Hmm. Could that GOP apparatus of Greek chorus chanters possibly include, say, certain journalists?

Hold that thought for a moment while we contemplate this week's (Jan. 21) Barnes story. It reports that George W. Bush is a "big government conservative." Perhaps you think this is a contradiction in terms. No, Barnes explains. Big-government conservatives care about big projects. "For Bush, achieving these is more important than balancing the budget," he writes. "By definition, that makes him a big government conservative—that is, a conservative willing to embrace deficit spending for the sake of large, critical government programs."

A cynic might suspect that a big-government conservative is nothing more than a small-government conservative in search of a rationale for budget deficits. Barnes assures us that it actually springs from deep ideological conviction. Big-government conservatives, he writes, "take a relatively benign view of government and aggressively seek to expand the programs they believe in." Did circumstances perhaps play a teensy role in encouraging Bush to adopt this philosophy? No, Barnes insists, he has always been a big-government conservative. "It's no secret that Bush has a more positive view of government than do most conservatives. He made that clear in the 2000 campaign," Barnes explains. How could anybody have been so silly as to believe otherwise?

Maybe one reason is that they were reading Fred Barnes. Last year (April 30, 2001), Barnes wrote a story pegged to Bush's budget explaining that the defining legacy of the Bush presidency was to reduce the size of government by 2.5 percent of the GDP. The story quotes Budget Director Mitch Daniels—who is also featured in the "big government conservative" piece—saying of government spending, "lower is better. It's like the welfare rolls." That doesn't sound like a "benign view of government." Nor does Daniels' argument, also faithfully recorded by Barnes at the time, that it was necessary to reduce spending in order to reduce the national debt and save the Social Security surplus.

Perhaps there is a philosophical consistency here that escapes me. Or maybe the White House is rallying the GOP apparatus to explain away the next three years of structural deficits. I know just the writer to tell that story.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic and author of The Big Con: The True Story of How Washington Got Hoodwinked and Hijacked by Crackpot Economics.

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