Republicans unveil their new line for the fall.
As Adam Nagourney reports in the New York Times, Republican contenders so far have found one word to differentiate themselves from Bush: cheaper. All weekend, wannabes invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan, who was such a true believer in fiscal conservatism that the national debt only tripled on his watch, to nearly $3 trillion. Bush has presided over the disappearance of a $5.6 trillion projected surplus, and by the time he's through will have added another $4 trillion to the debt.
Of course, Republicans conveniently forget that not only did the country tire of Reagan's budget busting, but they tired of the paradoxical antigovernment tone that went with it. That's what led the elder Bush to promise "a kinder, gentler nation" in the first place.
A genuine fiscal conservative like John McCain—who aspires to be Reagan without the tax cuts—will have no trouble distinguishing himself from Bush. But Nagourney points out that other prospective candidates in Memphis offered little idea what to cut, and that senators who promise to cut spending as president might have an obligation to actually vote for doing so in Congress. The headline in today's Washington Post suggests how well that's going: "Republicans on Hill Resist Party Leaders' Spending Cuts."
Spending, I Wish I Could Quit You: Nagourney says the candidates "are not alone in seeing political benefit in returning to the spending issue"—the White House sees advantage in it, too. A White House strategist suggests that talking about spending cuts could help rally the Republican base in the fall. Old spin: Deficits don't matter. New spin: Deficits are a brilliant political ploy to get the Republican base exercised about Republican overspending. Bush has his message for November: "Vote for us—we're spent!"
Once again, Republicans seem to have doubled back on their contradictions. In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, party strategists discovered a serious design flaw in conservatism: The country wouldn't let Republicans cut government spending anywhere near as much as Republicans wanted to cut taxes. Compassionate conservatism was concocted to correct that glitch by just cutting taxes and letting government spending soar. The new design flaw: Voters don't like that, either.
Bill Clinton once summed up compassionate conservatism as a way to tell voters that we really wish we could help solve their problems with health care, education, and wages, but we just can't, and we're really sorry about it. In Memphis, the refreshingly candid Sen. Lindsey Graham came up with a new twist. He drew big cheers for telling delegates, "I am sorry for letting you down when it comes to spending your money."
Republicans have come full circle: These days, compassionate conservatism means even saying you're sorry for having been a compassionate conservative. ... 9:46 A.M. (link)
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at email@example.com. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of George Bush on the Slate home page by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.