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The Bush Record of Tax Cuts, Failure and Betrayal


I'm not sure what good it does for progressives to delude themselves about Bush's success in passing pure domestic policy initiatives that easily overcame the opposition of Republican moderates, but the reality is that he saw his initiatives watered down at every turn.

Bush initially sought a $1.6 trillion tax cut. The votes didn't exist. So the price tag was reduced to $1.35 trillion, and since a filibuster looked unbreakable, the bill went through the budget reconciliation process, which meant that its deficit-increasing provisions — that is to say, most all of it — would sunset in 2010. For that reason, much of that bill evaporates this year. Interestingly, Olympia Snowe advocated a "trigger" option that year, too, which would have revoked the tax cuts if the budget surpluses were beneath expectations.

The 2003 tax cuts were trimmed from more than $700 billion to about $300 billion by a coalition of Senate moderates. Social Security privatization was, of course, quickly abandoned. Medicare Part D was loathed by many House conservatives. Tellingly, Dick Armey wrote an op-ed opposing it, and Tom DeLay had such trouble passing it over conservative objections that the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the tactics he used to pass it.

There's a sort of comfort in believing that George W. Bush got everything he wanted, because it suggests that if liberals could only emulate his tactics, they too could get everything they want. But Bush's domestic policy was appalling to most conservatives. His tax cuts were a victory, but he never matched them with spending cuts. No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and McCain-Feingold looked a lot more like liberal efforts to increase the welfare state than anything the Heritage Foundation would produce. Ted Kennedy, in fact, was a key mover in each of those bills, though he voted against the final version of the Medicare expansion. Social Security Privatization was a bust.

The Bush White House was very good at leveraging 9/11 to ensure congressional support for Middle East adventurism, but they didn't crack the code unlocking a compliant Congress for a hard-line conservative agenda. That's why most conservatives think their domestic policy was a mixture of tax cuts, failures and betrayals, and they're right about that. The problems posed by the Senate are part of the system, not specific to a particular party.

Photo credit: By Roger L. Wollenberg Via Bloomberg News

By Ezra Klein  |  September 3, 2009; 4:49 PM ET
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Bush appeared to ask for more, then cut back in the face of opposition, so he may have gotten what he really wanted.

Compare the Democrats who preemptively concede things.

Posted by: fuse | September 3, 2009 4:10 PM | Report abuse

This is a very honest commentary on Bush's domestic agenda. Please don't blame conservatism for his failure; it was never tried.

Posted by: jfcarro | September 3, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

>>Please don't blame conservatism for his failure>>

Funny how all those conservative politicians voted for his agenda.

Posted by: fuse | September 3, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

He wanted tax cuts for the rich and he got them and turned surpluses into deficits as far as the eye can see so that there would be a call to shrink government that we are hearing now. He wanted an adventure in Iraq and he got that, even if he lied through his teeth repeatedly. How is this not being effective? He got his agenda passed, except for privitizing social security with much smaller majorities than Obama has now. That is success by any measure.

Posted by: srw3 | September 3, 2009 6:18 PM | Report abuse

I couldn't agree more with fuse. Obama's main problem is that instead of starting at a point that liberals would be ecstatic with (single payer) and negotiating (with somebody else besides himself) to something that is acceptable, he discounted the liberal position from the get go and started at something acceptable so the negotiation becomes something that is really weak/borderline unacceptable. Let's hope he at least learns his lesson for the future.

On the other hand, I try to keep reminding myself, if we get a good exchange with a public option trigger and the insurance reforms, it will still be leaps and bounds better then what we were looking at just a couple years ago. Keep the faith people...

Posted by: timnlisa1 | September 3, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

Obama is extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the top two brackets. The final cost will be at least $2 trillion. Bush won.

An unfunded drug benefit and tax cuts are a walk in the park compared to instituing a public option. That's where the analogy breaks down.

timnlisa1--"if we get a good exchange"

A "good exchange" is one along the lines of FEHBP that is exempt from state laws that are designed to protect the entrenched monopolies. Do you think such an exchange will pass? No way.

Posted by: bmull | September 3, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

I have to agree with others about spending. Bush went to Congress, asked them to increase spending at a rate that I would have said was unthinkable, and Congress agreed. By any reasonable measure, that's a legislative success.

Obviously, this was a loss, rather than a victory, for small government conservatives, but how many small government conservatives are there, anyway? During the 2000 campaign, Bush did use some small-government rhetoric, and even produced a budget showing what this would mean to military hawks: A defense budget of $50 billion over baseline over the next 10 years. To put that in perspective, Al Gore proposed $100 billion over baseline. A don't recall anyone on the right raising a peep about this. They all understood that Bush was a liar. And they were right. When Bush got into office, he proposed spending $17 billion over baseline in his first budget (which translates to a minimum of $170 billion over 10 years).

So in 2000, small government conservatives lost when Bush won the Republican primary. Their best strategy would have been to vote for Al Gore, though I bet a lot of them just sat the election out.

When Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, he offended parts of the conservative movement that he *hadn't* written off in the 2000 election, and he backed down rather quickly. So the notion that Bush was ignoring the wishes of the conservative movement that was the driving force behind his election doesn't seem to fit the facts. The Miers nomination is the exception that proves the rule.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | September 3, 2009 9:24 PM | Report abuse

I think Fuse hits it on the head:

>Bush appeared to ask for more, then cut back in the face of opposition, so he may have gotten what he really wanted.<

It's a given that the Senate will get its pound of flesh out of any piece of legislation. The Bush administration appeared to adjust its aim accordingly ---- it always aimed high, anticipating that the Senate would lower the final trajectory into the vicinity of the desired target. The Obama administration appears to be doing the opposite --- it lowers its trajectory from the outset, hoping that this will satisfy the Senate and pre-empt further sight-lowering. But it has been a losing tactic --- Team Obama aims low to begin with, and then the Senate forces the administration's sights lower still.

Posted by: lboros | September 3, 2009 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Nothing's actually come up for a vote yet and the Republicans have already removed themselves from any serious discussion. Fuse expresses a legitimate concern, but it's far from over and the Republicans have reduced themselves to a drooling tin-foil hat crowd.

Posted by: tl_houston | September 4, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

------Interestingly, Olympia Snowe advocated a "trigger" option that year, too, which would have revoked the tax cuts if the budget surpluses were beneath expectations.------

Great, let's follow through. Pass the public option and revoke it if it isn't deficit neutral.

While you attempted to use this story as an example of why we should hold of any real reform, it actually makes a strong case as to why deluding the bill will be disastrous.

Posted by: justmy2 | September 4, 2009 10:02 AM | Report abuse

KennethAlmquist wrote: "Obviously, this was a loss, rather than a victory, for small government conservatives, but how many small government conservatives are there, anyway?"

They're all small government conservatives, just not when it comes to spending in their own districts or states.

Posted by: kcc3 | September 4, 2009 11:06 AM | Report abuse

These declaration of "aiming high" are entirely arbitrary. Sure, a 1.6 trillion dollar tax cut looks like a "aiming high" to progressives like you and me. I'm sure a public option looks like a "aiming high" to conservatives.

Posted by: RS22 | September 4, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, does Obama know you're declaring him impotent? I don't think that will help Obama when the time comes. How desperate are you to justify and/or excuse Obama's every failure?

Posted by: kmblue | September 4, 2009 2:01 PM | Report abuse

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