Jonathan Chait has an article, inter alia, on the reality detached, but ideologically convenient, right wing meme that Bush’s failure stemmed from inadequate adherence to conservative dogma.
But to these critics Bush’s primary ideological apostasy is that he supposedly presided over vast new spending increases. Both Democrats and Republicans have gleefully taken up the charge–the former in order to discredit Bush, the latter to shield conservatism from the stench of his failure. It’s a trumped-up indictment. Bush did spend generously on defense and homeland security, with conservative approval, but domestic discretionary spending actually declined from 3.1 percent of GDP to 2.8 percent. It is true that Bush approved a vast new prescription drug benefit. But 89 percent of Americans believed in 2000 that Medicare should have such a benefit. Bush’s critics on the right have no explanation for how he could have gotten elected in 2000 without promising one or reelected in 2004 without following through. Still, the critique has taken hold. The Democracy Corps poll found that, by a 17-point margin, Republicans attribute their party’s failures in 2006 and 2008 to its insufficient conservatism. (Voters as a whole attributed it to excessive conservatism.)
At least in a totally superficial sense, there is something to this argument; as Chait notes, total spending did in fact increase substantially. Conservatives point to this particular profligacy as evidence that federal expenditure spells anathema, but to call this theory half-baked would be an insult to an entire class of inchoate bakery items. According to the Brookings Instutition, total spending in Iraq now totals $600 billion (and to put that in context, it’s roughly enough to surpass current record setting $455 billion deficit by almost $150 billion). The problem with this sort of spending is that it’s an economic black hole. Sure, some of the money goes to bloat the pockets of a few parochial interest groups like Haliburton, Lockheed Martin, and ExxonMobil, but in general, it’s money lost. Unlike spending in World War II, the War in Iraq doesn’t employ hordes of housewives or coincide with the expansion of American manufacturing capacity. And unlike infrastructure investment or social investments like education or health care spending, the $600 billion in Iraq will pay no dividends toward increasing economic productivity. That it has done nothing to gaurantee our safety adds insult to injury. In any event, $600 billion down the tubes hardly adduces the conclusion that even further reduced domestic spending would have vindicated conservative principles.