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Bush's vision of government is big, activist

WASHINGTON—To Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement, government was a threat to individual liberty that needed to be beaten back into submission.

To Ronald Reagan, government wasn't the solution, it was the problem.

Now, the man who claims the mantle of those earlier conservatives, President Bush, is filling in the fine brushstrokes of a different vision of government for 21st-century America.

As defined in his second inaugural address, his latest State of the Union message, his new budget and his four years of experience, Bush envisions the federal government as an expansive, muscular force to project his will at home and abroad.

Bush's vision defies ideology and makes labeling it difficult. He sounds like a traditional conservative when he talks about the military or partially privatizing Social Security. But he also would expand government powers and send budget deficits soaring in ways that conservatives and libertarians traditionally have found abhorrent.

His government would strengthen the military to fight terrorists around the world and to reshape the Middle East. It would increase federal police power, escalate the growing federal role in local education and establish federal power over the states in defining marriage.

Bush's federal government would pull back from its 70-year-old commitment to Social Security, the keystone of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal expansion of government in the 1930s, but at the same time it would expand Medicare, the centerpiece of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s, to help the elderly pay for prescription drugs.

And it would make those commitments and more—such as making his first-term tax cuts permanent—without the cash to pay the escalating price, which totals trillions of dollars.

Bush's approach alarms some Republicans, who fear he's moving their party and the country away from conservative principles, and most Democrats, who complain that his approach to government endangers everything from security for seniors to civil liberties.

"If he gets what he's proposing, it will be revolutionary in terms of our concept of the role of government," said Leon Panetta, a Democrat who's served as chairman of the House Budget Committee, White House budget director and White House chief of staff for President Clinton.

"The Republican majority, left to its own devices from 1995 to 2000, was a party committed to limited government and restoring the balances of federalism with the states," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., a leader among conservative Republicans. "Clearly, President Bush has had a different vision, and that vision has resulted in education and welfare policies that have increased the size and scope of government."

Bush aides concede that he's expanded the government, but add that he's also pushed through big tax reductions. The common theme they see is a man with a large vision.

"I think you've seen time and again that this president has been willing to take on big issues and to find solutions," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said last week.

"We have been able to get things done, whether it was the tax cuts or historic education reforms or modernizing Medicare, passing trade-promotion authority. We've accomplished big things."

Bush would increase spending on the military by 5 percent next year, a 41 percent increase since 2001. He would boost FBI spending by 11 percent next year, capping a 76 percent increase since 2001.

The area where he's arguably most expansive is education, historically controlled and financed by state and local governments.

For decades after the federal Department of Education was created in 1979, conservatives fought to abolish it. As a member of the House of Representatives, one who voted against its creation was Dick Cheney.

Yet when Bush took office, he accelerated the federal role in education.

He now proposes to set federal standards for high school students, much as he set them for elementary school students with his No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

While his latest proposed budget would effectively freeze federal spending on education next year at $51 billion, that still would mark a 39 percent increase since fiscal 2001. By comparison, Democratic President Clinton increased federal spending on education by 27 percent over eight years.

"George Bush has gone farther than any president in terms of federalizing education," said Bill Frenzel, a former Republican member of Congress from Minnesota and a veteran budget analyst.

Bush also signed into law a historic 2003 expansion of Medicare, the biggest since President Johnson, a Democrat, and the Democratic-majority Congress created it in 1965. Bush added subsidized prescription drugs for seniors to Medicare's menu of services.

He pushed that through a skeptical Republican-majority Congress by vowing it would cost no more than $400 billion over its first 10 years, even though his administration had concealed an internal estimate that it would cost more than $500 billion. Last week, the administration said the drug benefit would cost $724 billion over the first 10 years.

Pence, a leader of conservative House Republicans, called Bush's education proposals "the largest expansion of the federal Department of Education since it was created by President Jimmy Carter" and the Medicare plan "a massive one-size-fits-all entitlement that would place trillions in obligations on our children and grandchildren without giving any thought about how to pay for it."

Indeed, even without adding the prescription-drug benefit, Medicare's costs are projected to soar in coming decades as the baby boom generation retires and elders live longer.

As Bush campaigned for his budget last week by focusing on its proposed cuts in 150 federal programs—which would save $20 billion in a $2.57 trillion budget, or less than 1 percent—he didn't mention the trillions of dollars in costs that would result from his big-ticket proposals, starting just after he leaves office.

Leaving behind deficits and debt is hardly the kind of legacy any president would choose. But Bush might not care.

First, he could believe the modern conservative mantra that deficits will help build political pressure to restrain spending, the "starve the beast" approach. Second, he could believe that the deficits are a small and insignificant price to pay for his goals, that they wouldn't hurt him politically or the country economically. Said Cheney during the first term: "Reagan taught us deficits don't matter."

But they do add up.

The president's proposal to divert tax money from Social Security to privately managed accounts could cost about $2.2 trillion over the first 10 years it's fully operational, according to Social Security actuaries. Pressed by Congress last week to explain the costs, Treasury Secretary John Snow repeatedly refused.

Expanding Medicare would cost $724 billion over 10 years, according to the president.

Making Bush's first-term tax cuts permanent would cost $1.1 trillion over the next 10 years, according to his budget.

Democrats accuse Bush of hiding the bad news, using what budget insiders call "smoke and mirrors" to make things look better than they are. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called his budget a "hoax."

Frenzel, who was the senior Republican on the House Budget Committee in the 1980s, agreed that Bush's budget is less than candid, but said that was nothing new.

"Every president and Congress has manipulated the budget, so it is difficult to tell the actual condition of the budget," he said. "I wouldn't accuse Bush of any more smoke and mirrors than anyone else."

But excluding fiscal realities from the budget doesn't make them go away.

Lost in some of the political rhetoric last week was a chilling warning from U.S. Comptroller General David Walker.

"Our nation's fiscal policy is on an unsustainable course and our fiscal gap grew much larger in ... 2004," Walker told Congress. "Continuing on this unsustainable fiscal path will gradually erode, if not suddenly damage, our economy, our standard of living and ultimately our national security."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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