Democrats To The Right Of Bush

10 April 2003

By Stentor Danielson

It's becoming increasingly clear that President Bush isn't a conservative.

He certainly ran as a conservative back in 2000. He figured he could cut taxes quite a bit, given that the country was running a budget surplus and the other option would be to spend that money on social programs or pork-barrel projects. He was in favor of doing more for our men and women in the armed forces (going so far as to insult their readiness in order to make the point). And he cozied up to the religious right.

Two years later, he's at least still got the religious right to his credit. But heís not doing so well with supporting the military despite launching a war, as he works to slash veterans' benefits and drops his campaign pledge to bring home some of our overextended military. And he's done the irresponsible liberals one better with his "don't tax but spend anyway" budget plan.

Bush's budget proposals are staggering in their audacity. He seems to have fooled himself into thinking tax cuts will pay for themselves through stimulating the economy. The Congressional Budget Office -- after trying nine different economic models in an attempt to get numbers that validate Bush -- begs to differ, predicting $1 trillion of deficits over the next five years. While the budget does propose trimming spending a bit, that impact is dwarfed by the bill for the war and reconstruction in Iraq. Rather than face up to the cost of the war and ask the nation to tighten its belt, Bush held off on asking for war funding until after his budget was out. The strategy, apparently, was that Congress would pass a budget based on no war cost, then happily sign off on extra money for the war. (In another insult to the military, the White House has coopted them to sell the tax cuts, with Ari Fleischer arguing that the cuts are needed "so that when our men and women in the military return home, they'll have jobs to come home to.")

One would think that repudiating core conservative principles would bring howls of indignation from Bush's conservative colleagues. There has been some discontent within the GOP, particularly about the recklessness of Bush's budget. Yet the party managed to rally the votes to pass all of the president's proposed $726 billion tax cut in the House of Representatives, and may threaten a compromise tax cut of "only" $550 billion pondered by a Congressional conference committee trying to reconcile the House bill with its $350 billion Senate twin.

As it turns out, some of the most trenchant criticisms of Bush's un-conservatism in the political sphere have come from a Democrat -- former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean. From the first step of his campaign, Dean has been criticizing not only Bush's current budget, but also his original tax cut that, along with the market's bullish turn, is responsible for much of the projected budget deficits.

Thus far, the media have cast Dean as a liberal. He first broke onto the national consciousness in 2000, when he signed into law the nation's first statute legalizing homosexual marriage (though the law compromised by calling it "civil union" so as not to invoke the "full faith and credit" clause when a CUed couple moved out of state). The move provoked widespread outrage in a state that, for all its liberal reputation, was apparently not quite ready to accept the crazy left-wing idea of equal rights.

In his campaign, Dean has gotten the most press as "the anti-war candidate." With most of the front-runners in the Democratic field either for the war in Iraq or vacillating (that's you, John Kerry), Dean has distinguished himself by consistent opposition to the war. Keep in mind, however, that Dean is no lefty pacifist. He sees Saddam Hussein as a real threat that must be dealt with and sees war as a legitimate last resort, but feels that non-war options have not been exhausted and that alienating the rest of the world is too high a price to pay for Saddam's downfall. Nevertheless, he has attracted a large following from the antiwar movement.

So on the two main issues that have gotten press for Dean, he falls to the left of most contenders for the White House. Yet Dean's supporters make a point of the candidate's more conservative side, which can make him hard to accurately classify. For example, he has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association. And he's a fiscal conservative.

Dean has a record to show his commitment to budget discipline. As governor, he managed to pay off a $70 million deficit (not as paltry as it looks when you consider the size of Vermont). And while he has vocally opposed Bush's tax cuts, heís not opposed to tax cuts on principle. In fact, he was able to afford cuts in the income tax and sales tax in Vermont. So his criticisms arenít just opportunistic Bush-bashing.

Dean makes the usual liberal arguments as well -- that the tax cut disproportionately benefits the wealthy and that people would rather have improved government services than a tax cut. But he also uses typical fiscal conservative language, talking about "responsibility" instead of "recklessness." His highest priority is a balanced budget, which means not spending money we donít have. That's straight out of the conservative playbook (despite conservatives' consistent failure to follow through on it). Dean's fiscal conservatism goes so far as to worry supporters who grant that a little deficit spending now could provide a Keynesian boost to the struggling economy.

What Dean says may not end up meaning much. His candidacy may fizzle once the campaign gets going in earnest (particularly if the war goes Bushís way). If he does continue to find a voice in national politics, however, he may make the president a little uncomfortable. It's not often a Republican has to deal with being criticized from the right by a Democrat.

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