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Maybe deficits do matter

Growth in spending marks a fundamental change in conservatism

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President Reagan may have proved deficits don't matter politically, but maybe they should, Bruce Morton says.

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Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly opined years ago that Ronald Reagan proved deficits don't matter. Politically, that's been true; it's hard to find a voter upset about the growing national debt and all that. But maybe they should be.

David Broder, in a recent Washington Post column, offers some evidence of that. National defense spending is up from $304.8 billion in 2001 to $535.9 billion in the current fiscal year, a 76 percent increase. Health care and Medicare, in the same period, have risen from $389.6 billion to $611 billion, up 57 percent, and Social Security and other federal retirement and income-support spending are up from $702.8 billion to $915.3, a 30 percent increase.

It's all just numbers -- but it isn't, really. As recently as 1994, when the Republicans came to power on the strength, in part, of their Contract With America, one of its items was a proposed constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Exceptions for wartime, sure, but when was the last time you heard anybody even mention that? The national debt -- that's what the country owes other people and other countries -- that's gone up from $3.3 trillion -- from 1787 until Bush's first term -- to $5 trillion -- a jump of more than 50 percent just in his five years.

If Bush is a conservative, and he would certainly say that he is, this suggests a fundamental change in the nature of conservatism. It used to be the party of small government, limited spending and balanced budgets, and it made hay by denouncing liberals as the "tax-and-spend" guys.

Now it's hard to know what the liberals are, or might be, they are so thoroughly out of power. But the conservatives? That's easy. They are the big government, big-spending, cut-taxes and go-further-in-debt party. The U.S. will be a little like the coal miner in the old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, "another day older and deeper in debt," owing his soul to "the company store," which in this case would be countries such as China.

Is this good or bad? Well, if you and I ran up debt the way Uncle Sam does, we'd be in jail. He isn't, but can even a big, powerful country just keep piling up its debts forever? The suspicion here is, it can't, though the Bush administration has done a very good job of proving me wrong about that so far.

Farewell ...

In any case, you'll have to worry through the future of the economy without help from this aging pundit. This is the last of these columns; CNN and I are parting company -- amicably, I should add, and neither one of us owes the other any huge sums of money.

I leave you, I think, with a terrific year to look forward to. Great questions: Not just, will the United States go broke, but, will the voters finally get tired of debt and scandal and corruption, and throw at least some of the rascals out. The Bush administration is a pretty good argument for divided government; when one party controls all branches of government, checks and balances tend to disappear. And how will Iraq turn out? The Iraqis seem to have chosen a prime minister whose experience is more religious than political; can he make this brand new democracy work? And how will Iran turn out? Marching toward the bomb, it seems, which makes it worth remembering that when Iran and Iraq were fighting, back in the 1980s and Iraq was working on a bomb, Israel, which correctly figured it, not Iran, would be the likeliest target, launched an airstrike that took the plant out. It's a good bet the Israelis would do that again, if they felt threatened enough.

I've enjoyed writing these columns. I hope you've enjoyed reading them, and I hope we both, now from our separate perches, enjoy the troubled world in which we live.

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