Sunday, February 13, 2005

Holes in a Web of Budget Deceit
Holes in a Web of Budget Deceit

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A25

Let us stand back in awe at the Bush administration's genius. Few administrations in our history have been more successful in setting the terms of the political debate. None has been as skilled at getting its facts accepted as plausible even when they are not. None has looked so principled, even when it said one thing while doing another.

More than any of his predecessors, President Bush understands the conventions of journalism and the traditions of political debate. These require that respectful attention be paid to whatever claims the president makes. Journalists who have the temerity to question whether the claims ring true (or whether the numbers add up) can count on being pummeled as liberal ideologues, even when they are only seeking the facts.

The president's claims are thus duly reported, and most of the challenges come from the political opposition. Then the administration defends itself (as in, "administration officials dismissed the criticism as partisan carping"). Even when the most diligent and numbers-savvy budget reporters try to explain what's going on -- and bless all of them for trying -- the truth is usually lost in the cacophony of claims and counterclaims.

It's not surprising that so many readers skip the budget stories and turn to the sports pages, where the numbers, at least, are reliable.

What's particularly ingenious about the administration's approach is that it throws out so many questionable claims at once that its opponents are left fuming, furious, sputtering -- and easily dismissed as "Bush haters." First the administration understates how much long-term borrowing its Social Security privatization plan will require. Then it claims to have made deep cuts in the deficit when in fact its less-touted tax cut proposals ($1.4 trillion over 10 years) will just ramp the deficit back up again. And you never know on any given day what the new cost estimates of that prescription drug benefit will look like.

Oh, yes, and the administration's "tough" budget doesn't even include the costs of the Social Security plan or the long-term costs of the war in Iraq, let alone the huge costs of permanently fixing the unintended effects of the alternative minimum tax.

As one critic put it, Bush's spending cuts "may grab headlines but will have little impact on the tide of red ink that Bush has ridden since 2001." Bush's budget "will obscure an agenda that is likely to generate ever-larger deficits over the coming decades" and "resembles Swiss cheese -- and the holes may be more interesting than the substance."

Are those the words of a big-spending, Bush-loathing, partisan Democrat? Nope. They come from a budget commentary in the current issue of Business Week, a magazine that can hardly be accused of ultra-leftism. Then there was a description of the Bush budget as "tough talk, but not enough to reassure the world that U.S. public finances are in safe hands." That would be from the Financial Times, another journal free of any taint of Marxism.

Personally, those critiques gave me hope. Perhaps we are finally reaching the point at which hardheaded journalists are realizing the limits of "on the one hand, on the other hand" formulas where Bush's budget facts are concerned. Some facts are true. Some facts, no matter how well spun, aren't facts at all.

And at least some of the president's supporters are perfectly candid about the game that is being played. So I offer three hearty cheers for my conservative friends on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page. Writing on Tuesday -- beneath a cheeky headline, "Hooray for the Deficit" -- the Journal's opiners argued that "the much-loathed budget 'deficit' is the main, and perhaps the only, reason we may finally get some federal spending restraint."

"The good news," the Journal declared cheerfully, "is that the size of the current deficit is once again focusing political attention back where it belongs, on the rapid rise in federal outlays."

Every commentator and reporter should thank these editorialists and shout, "Free at last!" All the pious claims by less candid conservatives that they and their president truly care about the deficit can now be ignored. The whole point (and, yes, this happened in the 1980s, too) is to create deficits, followed by a "crisis," followed by demands for cuts in domestic programs, especially in those "federal outlays" for low-income people.

The budget coverage may never be as engaging as the sports pages. But it will be much more bracing if everyone feels free to speak the truth: The president wants to cut a lot of things. The deficit just doesn't happen to be one of them.