I recently had dinner with two friends, both of whom are successful attorneys involved in Republican politics.
Conversation turned to the presidency of George W. Bush. When I mildly pooh-poohed the president’s record on spending, I was brought to task.
“W had the best record on discretionary spending of any president since Nixon,” my friend assured me.
I told him I was pretty sure this was not the case. He disagreed.
[Disclosure: The writer briefly served the White House during George W. Bush's second term.]
The following morning, on my bus ride to the city, I pulled the CBO data. I was not surprised that my friend was wrong; but I was a little surprised at the degree to which he was wrong.
Discretionary spending (government outlays that do not include entitlement spending) during W’s presidency increased at a faster rate than any president’s since the CBO began tracking the data in 1974. It went from $649 billion in 2001 to $1.1 trillion in 2008, his final year in office. (see below)
That’s an increase of nearly 80 percent. The next closest is Ronald Reagan, whose two terms saw discretionary spending increase by about 50 percent.
Reagan, it's worth pointing out, governed with a Democratically-controlled House of Representatives. Republicans during the Bush years have no such excuse; the GOP controlled both chambers of Congress for four of Bush’s eight years.
(Sidebar: The president with the best record on discretionary spending? One Barack Obama. Discretionary spending decreased by three percent between 2009 and the 2013. While there is some evidence that gridlock following the Republican takeover in 2010 is responsible for the decrease—spending increased Obama’s first two years in office—the fact is discretionary spending under Obama has decreased.)
Why is this important? Because people remember.
The people who go to work, pay their taxes, listen to talk radio, and contribute to their party and causes, they get this. They might not be able to recite the budget data, but they know. They were promised fiscal discipline, and instead they watched political leaders claim how successfully they had pared back spending.
Which brings me back to my two very bright friends. They should know this stuff. But they had no idea, and they are hardly alone. There is a disconnect between the GOP and its base—and voters know it.
Can Republicans who go to Washington match campaign rhetoric with actual fiscal discipline? Or is the machine too big and our politics too partisan?
[Image Credit: Executive Office of POTUS | Public Domain]