President Bush gave faint praise Monday to the deficit-cutting measures contained in his own budget. Not surprisingly, congressional Democrats were far less polite.
No wonder on both counts, on a political issue that has often seemed more imagined than real.
Bush’s claim to cut government red ink in half over five years omits the cost of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq beyond Sept. 30. It reckons, implausibly, that neither he nor the Republicans who control Congress will want new tax cuts in future years.
It underestimates by many billions the money needed for Social Security overhaul. And it assumes that the GOP-controlled Congress will send veterans a new $2.1 billion bill for health care through 2010.
It also assumes that lawmakers will acquire discipline when it comes to hometown projects.
If the numbers in Bush’s glossy budget book weren’t clear enough about administration goals, the president personally supplied the emphasis.
“Our priorities are winning the war on terror, protecting our homeland, growing our economy,” said the chief executive who seeks increased spending on defense and homeland security, and wants previously enacted tax cuts made permanent.
Next, he told reporters at the White House, the budget “focuses on results. … It’s a budget that reduces and eliminates redundancy.” That’s code for merging some programs, eliminating others and squeezing domestic programs generally.
Finally, Bush got to the deficit, making it fifth in line in his prepared recitation.
“People on both sides of the aisle have called upon the administration to submit a budget that helps meet our obligations of – our goal of reducing the deficit in half over a 5-year period, and this budget does just that,” he said.
If the targets are met, the budget book says, the remaining deficit will be “lower than all but seven of the last 25 years.”
As a rousing endorsement, that might rate a 25 on a scale of 1 down to 25.
Democrats reacted like they had been handed a club to use against a president who just won re-election and led the GOP to bigger congressional majorities.
Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, the senior Democrat on the Budget Committee, said deficits will be far greater than the administration estimates. If Bush’s plans were adopted, he forecast ominously, “deficits and debt would continue to explode at an unsustainable rate and the nation’s long-term economic security would be threatened.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second ranking Democrat in the House, added, “In four short years, this administration has turned record budget surpluses into deficits as far as the eye can see.”
Yes, and won four more years in office, after an election run on personal character and issues ranging from the war in Iraq to the threat of terrorist attack and the economy. All of those are presumably more tangible to voters than the deficit.
“It’s a theoretical concept as opposed to a clearcut issue,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
He also suggested deficits were a political stalking horse.
“Democrats are interested in the deficit not because of the deficit but because they want to stop Republican tax cuts. And Republicans are focused on the deficit not because they’re focused on the deficit but because they want to stop Democratic spending,” he said.
Independents care more than either Republicans or Democrats about deficits, he said, a concern that was reflected in Ross Perot’s emergence in the 1990s.
Recent political history suggests that deficits don’t matter as much as economic vitality and tax cuts.
President Reagan came into office pledging to balance the budget, then emphasized tax cuts and a defense buildup instead. The economy strong, he won a second term on a 49-state landslide.
The current president’s father agreed with Democrats to raise taxes to curb deficits. That angered conservatives, and he lost the White House in a year in which the economy was still soft.
President Clinton and congressional Democrats pushed through a deficit-cutting plan in 1993 that leaned heavily on higher taxes – and they lost control of the House and Senate the following year for their trouble.
House Republicans swept into office determined to cut taxes while placing the budget on a path toward balance. They went after Medicare, the government shut down, and Clinton was re-elected amid economic prosperity.
Both parties claimed credit when the budget was balanced for four years during Clinton’s second term. In the years since, congressional Republicans have cited deficits as the reason to curb government spending, hoping to appeal to conservatives.
Except when the spending hits closest to home.
As Bush sent Congress a budget of restraint during the day, Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., claimed credit for securing $7 million to begin construction of a new, permanent bridge downstream of Folsom Dam.
“The funding is in addition to the $6 million that Doolittle secured over the last two years,” the statement says.
David Espo is AP’s chief congressional correspondent.