Column: Breaking the elephant’s back

By Sam Harding-Forrester

The weeks since President Bush’s Sept. 15 speech on Hurricane Katrina have been a watershed moment for many conservatives. The $200 billion cost of the anticipated reconstruction effort has awakened serious tensions within the Republican Party over appropriate fiscal policy. The ensuing complaints from conservative politicians, activists and pundits have highlighted Bush’s radical departures from traditional conservatism, and have also exposed fundamental inconsistencies in the new brand of conservatism his administration is selling.

Bush has always endured a tempestuous relationship with conservatives committed to small and frugal federal government. The “compassionate conservative” platform on which he campaigned in 2000 was not the meaningless catchphrase many assumed it was. It signaled a significant departure from governmental restraint, in favor of the kind of interventions stereotypically favored by Democrats, albeit often filtered through the lens of social conservatism. Neoconservative columnist David Brooks now approvingly describes Bush’s Gulf Coast reconstruction plan as nothing less than a “laboratory” for this “compassionate,” big-government approach.

Yet compassionate conservatism has always rested uneasily with a sizeable portion of the conservative base. Bush’s record on the economy reads like the explosion of spending that Republicans often accuse Democrats of plotting. All in all, Bush has presided over a federal spending increase of 35 percent during the course of his presidency, exceeding even the previous benchmark set by Lyndon B. Johnson. The costs incurred will only increase as Katrina’s far-ranging impact is felt.

At the same time, Bush has pursued the kind of minimalist tax policy typically correlated with fiscally restrained, small-government conservatism. The result of this chimerical synthesis of expanding government and shrinking taxation has been an increased reliance on borrowed funds. Bush’s Gulf Coast reconstruction money, like the funding for his war in Iraq, must come primarily from foreign lenders like China’s central bank. Such deficit spending on what is an essentially sound economy amounts to reckless free riding on subsequent generations.

Bush has repeatedly deflected conservative criticisms of this profligacy with the promise of various right-wing reforms planned for his second term. But the “political capital” he trumpeted following his 2004 re-election has been squandered with astounding rapidity. Katrina has only worsened this downfall, and has also rendered previous budget forecasts obsolete. As a result, Bush’s controversial and expensive proposal to reform Social Security in accord with his goal of an “ownership society” looks likely to return to its rightful place as a 70-year-old Republican revenge fantasy.

Coming on the heels of so much unmitigated fiscal carnage, the proposed Gold Coast reconstruction effort has left many Republicans fed up at Bush’s steady expansion of federal spending. Yet the present moment is an inopportune time for them to pitch a case for small government. If anything, the Katrina debacle reminds us of the importance of judicious but generous federal spending. Funding for the breached New Orleans levees had been diverted to subsidize the war in Iraq. Michael Brown, the embattled former FEMA chief accused of bungling the federal response to Katrina, now plausibly defends himself by pointing out that the agency suffered substantial budget cuts following its incorporation into Bush’s vast Department of Homeland Security. And lest it be suggested that this reveals only a need for government investment in national security and defense, we should note that Katrina’s impact on impoverished (and mostly black) victims has highlighted the devastating effects of poverty on quality of life, and the importance of accessible health and property insurance. Social welfare must be fought for under capitalism, and government can only become so small before it becomes neglectful.

An examination of the federal government’s failure to prepare for and respond to Katrina therefore suggests that our problem is less big government than bad government. But Bush has already given America a disastrously expensive crash course in both. Fiscal conservatives are now forced to acknowledge that Bush is no more a friend to their cause than he is to socially progressive Democrats. Indeed, as government expands in lock-step with our national debt, it is increasingly clear that the present administration lacks any coherent plan for managing the national budget while also governing responsibly.

Sam Harding-Forrester is a senior in LAS. His column appears every Thursday. He can be reached at [email protected]