America’s Peculiar Amnesia

People have already forgotten how George W. Bush and the Republican Congress expanded government spending.

George W. Bush

Historical amnesia is at once the most endearing and the most frustrating of American qualities. On the one hand, it means that—F. Scott Fitzgerald to the contrary—there really are second acts in American lives. People can move somewhere else, reinvent themselves, start again.

On the other hand, our inability to remember what our policy was last week—never mind last decade—drives outsiders crazy. We forget that we supported the dictator before we decided to destroy him. Then we can’t understand why others, especially the dictator’s subjects, don’t always believe in the goodness of our intentions or the sincerity of our devotion to democracy.

Domestic policy is no different, as I learned from readers who wrote to denounce my column of two weeks ago. I had argued that Americans on both the left and the right have, for the last decade, consistently voted for high-spending members of Congress and consistently supported ever-higher levels of government intervention and regulation at all levels of public life. As a result, the federal government expanded under George W. Bush’s administration at a rate that was, at least until President Barack Obama came along, totally unprecedented in U.S. history.

Alas, historical amnesia appears to have affected some readers, many of whom are under the impression that President Bush believed in small government and that recent Republican congressional leaders opposed federal spending.

Here is a more accurate assessment: “President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ.” I didn’t write that; the astute libertarian economist Veronique de Rugy did. She also points out that during his eight years in office, Bush’s “anti-government” Republican administration increased the federal budget by an extraordinary 104 percent. By comparison, the increase under President Bill Clinton’s watch was a relatively measly 11 percent (a rate, I might add, lower than Ronald Reagan’s). In his last term in office, Bush increased discretionary spending—that means non-Medicare, non-Social Security—by 48.6 percent. In his final year in office, fiscal year 2009, he spent more than $32,000 per American, up from $17,216.68 in fiscal year 2001.

But Bush is not the only culprit. After all, the federal government usually spends money in response to state demands. Look, for example, at the demands made by Alaska, a state that produces a disproportionate quantity of anti-government rhetoric, which has had Republican governors since 2002, and which has a congressional delegation dominated by Republicans. Nevertheless, for the last decade, Alaska has been among the top three largest state recipients of federal funding, per capita. Usually, Alaska is far ahead—sometimes three times as far ahead—of most other states in the union.

Largely, this is because of one famous Alaskan, Sen. Ted Stevens—a Republican—who devoted himself to securing federal funding for his state during more than four decades in the Senate. Not only were his efforts extremely popular among his Republican constituents—he was re-elected multiple times—they won him many, many imitators. Timothy Noah has pointed out that Sarah Palin, when mayor of Wasilla, hired Stevens’ former chief of staff as a Washington lobbyist. As a result, the 6,700 inhabitants of Wasilla enjoyed $27 million in federal earmarks over a four-year period.

Please note, angry readers, that I am not citing these numbers in order to claim that the Obama administration has done any better. On the contrary, the Obama administration is far more profligate than either Clinton or Bush, terrifyingly so. Following the president’s first budget, de Rugy predicted “unprecedented and sustained levels of debt for the American people, their children, and grandchildren.” But then, the Democratic Party does not call itself the party of small government. The Republican Party does.

Of course, parties can change, politicians can see the light, lessons can be learned—and perhaps some Republicans have learned them. But you cannot start from scratch. You cannot forget history. You cannot pretend that the Republican Party has not supported big and wasteful spending programs—energy subsidies, farm subsidies, unnecessary homeland security projects, profligate defense contracts, you name it—for the last decade. Before the Republican Party can have any credibility on any spending issues whatsoever, Republican leaders need to speak frankly about the mistakes of the past.

They also must be extremely specific about which policies and which programs they are planning to cut in the future. What will it be? Social Security or the military budget? Medicare or the TSA? Vague “anti-government” rhetoric just doesn’t cut it anymore: If you want a smaller government, you have to tell us how you will create one.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.