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Wednesday, December 03, 2003

BELLY UP TO THE BAR, PAL–UNCLE SAM'S BUYIN'! 

Andrew Sullivan has been grousing about it for months. So have Tyler Cowen and Daniel Drezner. David Boaz fired a recent salvo in the op-ed page of the Washington Post. And I agree: The Republicans’ spending bender is staggering, even brazen.

Just look at the numbers. Federal spending is up 23.7 percent since Bush took office. Well, we’re fighting a war, you say; of course spending has to rise? Think again. The vast majority of this increase–20.8 percent–represents non-defense discretionary outlays. By way of comparison, under Reagan’s watch such spending decreased 13.5 percent. In the first three years of the Clinton administration, such spending decreased 0.7 percent.

What this money is being spent on rankles even more. Forget about the gigantic Medicare bill. How about peanut subsidies, which have gone from zero in the (supposedly) bad old Clinton days to $1.5 billion? Dairy subsidies likewise: $318 million in 1998 to $2.45 billion today. Or choo-choo trains. Many of us here in the Twin Cities whinge and sputter about the millions in public funds being spent on light rail, and rightfully so, but where’s the outcry over the feds’ doubling the Amtrak budget to over $1 billion? Perhaps worst of all is the Department of Education. Once it was a reliable bugbear of the Republicans; now it gets a 70 percent budget increase.

David Brooks comments on all this in a recent New York Times piece (which I read in Tuesday’s Star Tribune but will link to here in my ongoing annoyance with the Strib’s registration policy). He provides a sensible enough review of the decades-long transformation of American conservatives from fringe movement to establishment sugar daddies. But consider his conclusion:
Many conservatives are dismayed over what has happened to their movement as it has grown fat and happy in the Promised Land. A significant rift has opened up between the conservative think tankers and journalists, who are loyal to ideas, and the K Street establishmentarians, who are loyal to groups.

The good news for Democrats is that the K Street establishment will slowly win this struggle. The majority will ossify. It will lose touch with its principles and eventually crumble under the weight of its own spoils. The bad news for Democrats is that, as Republicans can tell you, the ossification process is maddeningly slow. After the New Deal, it took 60 years.
The “nyah nyah nyah!” tone of this seems awfully premature to me. The Republicans’ legislative majority is razor-thin, and Bush is an increasingly polarizing figure. I think that both are vulnerable in 2004, or at least would be if the Democrats weren’t in such disarray. And I’m starting to think that the country would be better off if the Republicans kept the White House (the war on terror being too important to entrust to anyone the Democrats have put forward so far) but the Democrats regained control of Congress. Because if the alternative to tax-and-spend liberals is tax-less-and-spend-more conservatives, this pragmatic libertarian (to borrow Daniel Drezner’s pet term) says gimme the former.

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