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Reagan vs. Dubya: A size of government contest

By W. James Antle III
web posted February 20, 2006

At first blush, conservatives debating whether Ronald Reagan was a better foe of big government than George W. Bush can sound like obsessive comic-book fans arguing in their parents’ basements about whether Superman was stronger than the Incredible Hulk. But as 2008 approaches and the Right becomes more reflective—as opposed to reflexively defensive—in its assessment of our 43rd president, such discussions will play an important role.

George W. BushThe debate is already intensifying. Fred Barnes recently compared Reagan and Bush at year six in a piece for The Weekly Standard. He implies in his new book Rebel-in-Chief that Dubya’s conservatism is superior to Reagan’s. Conservative columnist and former think-tanker Bruce Bartlett disagrees. The subtitle of his forthcoming book Impostor claims that Bush “Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.”

The conventional wisdom that President Bush is Reagan 2.0 has given way to detailed looks at some of the contrasts between the two chief executives. Even on foreign policy, observers have noticed ground between Reagan’s shining city on a hill and Bush’s “take that hill,” between peace through strength and peace through pre-emption. But the differences are perceived to be the greatest on size-of-government issues.

Over at TCS Daily, Ryan Sager reported from the 33rd annual Conservative Political Action Conference, “Everyone wants to be Reagan’s heir… Absolutely no one wants to be George W. Bush’s” on domestic policy. This prompted John McIntyre at Real Clear Politics to recall Reagan-era deficit spending and suggest that anti-Bush budget hawks are engaging in revisionist history when they point to the 1980s as a golden era of fiscal rectitude.

Both Reagan and the current occupant of the White House disappointed fiscal conservatives on federal spending (at least fiscal conservatives should have been disappointed). They both presided over large deficits, escalating outlays and the addition of another Cabinet-level department. But the end result isn’t exactly a wash, as some would have it.

Under Reagan, federal spending as a percentage of GDP fell slightly. It has increased under Bush. This is not purely attributable to post-9/11 defense and homeland-security needs; spending outside these areas rose from 12.8 percent of the economy in 2001 to 14.5 percent in 2005. Setting aside the question of whether all homeland-security spending actually goes toward securing the homeland, even excluding such expenditures non-defense discretionary spending is up nearly 30 percent.

In a policy analysis for the Cato Institute, Veronique de Rugy and Tad DeHaven compared the two presidents’ records on real non-defense discretionary spending. Bush outspent Reagan in nine of 11 categories. Where such spending fell 14 percent during Reagan’s first term, it rose 18 percent in Bush’s—“a whopping 32 percent difference between the two men,” de Rugy and DeHaven noted.

Overall, Bush has worsened Medicare’s solvency crisis with the addition of an unfunded prescription drug benefit—the biggest new entitlement since the Great Society—while surpassing LBJ’s increase in total real outlays. While Reagan occasionally vetoed excessive spending bills, Bush’s veto pen has been missing in action as a Republican Congress has gone on a pork feeding frenzy.

This is not to soft-pedal Reagan’s flawed record on spending. While Bush has amassed deficits of a greater absolute size, Reagan’s average deficit was larger as a percentage of GDP, peaking at 6.3 percent in 1983. During the Reagan years, the federal budget surpassed $1 trillion for the first time—rapidly closing in on $2.8 trillion today—and the national debt more than doubled. Although federal revenues increased despite lower marginal income tax rates, as the supply-siders predicted, federal spending grew even faster.

It’s also worth noting that as bad as Bush has been on spending—proposing expensive new programs, endorsing government growth and refusing to impose discipline on profligate appropriators—Congress has often been worse. The GOP majority hasn’t been reluctant to outspend the president’s budget proposals.

Both these caveats should raise red flags. First, the deficits of the 1980s and early ‘90s seriously undermined the Reagan project. The red ink was used to paint a caricature of tax cuts as irresponsible fiscal policy and eventually marginal tax rates crept up to 39.6 percent. Even after almost annual tax cuts from the Bush administration, the top rate is still higher than when Bill Clinton took office.

It didn’t have to be this way. As David Frum noted in Dead Right, had federal spending grown no faster than inflation in the decade between 1979 and 1989, the Reagan tax cuts and defense build-up still would have left over a budget surplus large enough to abolish the corporate income tax or slash Social Security taxes by one-third. By letting spending rise on auto pilot, Bush risks endangering his own tax cuts—especially if new broad-based taxes are needed to prop up bankrupt entitlement programs.

Second, Bush’s lack of philosophical commitment to limited government has set the tone in Washington, where the GOP was losing its will on spending before Clinton left town. Rhetoric matters, and there the divide between Reagan and Bush becomes a yawning chasm. Bush has for the most part carefully distanced himself from the conservative anti-statism of Reagan and Goldwater. It’s hard to imagine Reagan ever saying, as Bush did in 2003, that government has got to move whenever somebody hurts. It was a recent Democratic president who was interested in feeling our pain.

Bush may not be to blame for the big-government/K Street axis the congressional GOP has built. But he has done nothing to correct this axis’ destructive departures from conservatism. Instead he has worked overtime to give them a compassionate conservative veneer.

Neither Reagan nor Bush has delivered the smaller federal government that conservatives have claimed to favor since at least the 1930s. But Reagan did leave behind a substantially freer American economy than the one he found; his gains have sometimes been eroded, but never reversed. As taxpayers count the cost of Bush’s big-government conservatism, this fact may make comparing Reagan and Dubya seem like a less esoteric exercise.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

Other related stories

  • Morphing Bush into mahogany by Bernard Chapin (January 23, 2006)
    With Rebel in Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush Fred Barnes attempts to paint Dubya as a political outsider. Were that only so, responds Bernard Chapin


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