Reagan Ran Deficits, Why Can't Bush?

Roundup: Media's Take

Brenden Miniter, assistant editor of, in WSJ (Feb. 10, 2004):

Unlike most families, the federal government can perpetually spend more than it takes in and still remain fiscally sound. That's because unlike us mortals, Uncle Sam isn't going to retire. His income isn't going to top off in middle age and slip in his golden years. The occasional but short-lived downturn notwithstanding, it will continue to grow with the economy, forever.

With that in mind, President Bush made a reasonable gamble early in his administration--that deficits matter less than economic growth. When he took office the country was already in a recession, and less than nine months later it was plunged unexpectedly into war. Mr. Bush remembered the experience of Ronald Reagan, who faced down an even steeper recession with tax cuts. During Mr. Reagan's administration Washington ran large deficits too, but he is now revered for winning the Cold War and restoring the economy (not to mention the country's sense of optimism).

So why is Mr. Reagan a hero, while President Bush is taking so many hits even from the right for running up the government's tab?

Part of the reason is that ex-presidents are judged differently. While seeking the presidency and while in office, Mr. Reagan was attacked by plenty of Republicans. It was, after all, George Bush père who dubbed Mr. Reagan's tax-cutting proposals"voodoo economics." And David Stockman, Mr. Reagan's budget director, looked at his president's proposed budgets and pronounced"deficits as far as the eye can see."

Mr. Reagan managed to remake the Republican Party into an instrument for limited government and lower taxes. Conservatives hoped his landslide victory in 1980 would mean a similar remaking of the political establishment. After all, the GOP also won control of the Senate that year and gained enough House seats to have an"ideological majority" with the support of conservative Southern Democrats, today a dying breed. Soon, however, Republican pragmatists and"moderates" were sprinkled throughout the administration, forcing Mr. Reagan to overcome opposition from within his own party. And course, the Democrats, led by Massachusetts liberal Tip O'Neill, still controlled the House. Winning several large issues against these odds made Mr. Reagan even more of a hero on the right. Conservatives consoled themselves with his defense increases and tax cuts, excusing uncontrolled domestic spending as the price of doing business with House Democrats.

That bargain made sense in the 1980s. But now Republicans hold the White House and have controlled Congress since 1994 (except for a brief Senate interlude thanks to Jim Jeffords). Yet somehow spending seemed easier to control when Newt Gingrich was imposing discipline on Bill Clinton. The excuse now--"if only the Senate weren't so evenly divided"--isn't holding up to scrutiny. It's all giving many Republicans the sense that we have met the enemy and he is us .

comments powered by Disqus