An old game of Liar’s Poker

While America’s super-sized attention was diverted and divided among the superlatives of Super Bowl Sunday and Super Tuesday, Official Washington began playing its favorite old parlor game: Liar’s Poker — also known as the old budget game.

On Monday, with all the non-fanfare of an errant husband tiptoeing home after a bad boys’ night out, President Bush lamely gave Congress his lame-duck, legacy-lap budget. It was the first to break the $3 trillion mark. But the most crucial parts of Bush’s budget were written in two types of ink: red and disappearing.

The red ink showed a $410 billion deficit for 2008.

The disappearing ink was for the full cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars starting in 2010 and beyond: Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

This might make you think that Bush and his budgeters anticipated that there would be no costs for a U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan by 2010. But if you think that, it is only because you don’t know how the old budget game is played. Just because what you see in Bush’s budget for 2012 is a black-ink surplus, does that make you think Bush believes the United States will actually be in the black that year? (Don’t tell me you fell for that one, too.) If you want to get it right, don’t think capital candor. Think Liar’s Poker. For the game is all about lying about your numbers, hoping you can catch the other fellow’s lie before he catches yours.

Congress seems to be awash with winners in this year’s game. Apparently nobody was fooled by Bush’s disappearing-ink trick. Not just the Democrats, of course; they were quick to pounce. But also the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire was reported by the Lost Angeles Times to have found Bush’s budget disappointing because, as the senator said, it “does not accurately reflect” the full costs of the wars. “I am concerned that this proposal will make it too easy for Congress … to return to shadow budgeting and ignore costs we already know will occur.”

White house officials were reportedly quick to concede that their budget doesn’t list the full cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for the next year, and certainly not for the out-years. They expect U.S. troops to be in both countries for years. But the way the game has been played for years is that they call these war costs “emergency” spending — and this treated as off-budget spending — never mind that this war spending was actually long-known and -planned. (Note to self: Call American Express, Visa and MasterCard. Tell them all those large amounts charged on the credit cards for steaks at the Prime Rib and jets to the Caribbean, Maui and Rome were emergencies, not real money. So they should just pretend they don’t see those debts until my grandchildren can repay the money to their grandchildren.)

Of course, the president is way too smart to think that he could hide all of the hard truths about his budget deficits. So his budget shows deficits of $410 billion in 2008 and $407 billion in 2009. But here’s hoping you are catching on about how the game is played, so you know that can’t be the whole truth. It isn’t. Those deficit numbers are reduced, big-time, because Bush is pretending there will be a $200 billion Social Security surplus that he can play with like modeling clay. And also he knows that much of his actual war costs for Iraq and Afghanistan for 2008 and 2009 will be (I think you’ve got it now) off-budget because they will be labeled as emergencies.

Of course, a large part of Bush’s spending over the years can indeed be classified as an emergency — powerful retaliation for the terror attacks of 9/11 and sweeping safeguards for our homeland. But he never let that quash his zeal for huge tax cuts by which the top 1 percent of households will still be receiving 31 percent of the benefits. Now he wants to make those tax cuts permanent. And while he is also proposing huge cuts in domestic-spending increases, those won’t be as much as the cost of his tax cuts.

Back when he moved into the Oval Office, Bush issued a budget that had a happy-talk title: “Blueprint for New Beginnings.” In it he boldly faced up to a giddy task: How to spend a black-ink gift from his predecessor — a projected $5.6 trillion surplus over the coming decade. Eight years after, Bush can exult in his cynical triumph. Mission Accomplished.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)