November 16, 2003

The good soldier

By: AF Editors

Call him the “good soldier.” That’s what he calls himself: A true-blue conservative who joined the Bush administration two years ago with high hopes that it would transform politics. Earlier this month, the good soldier handed in his notice and started cleaning out his desk.

He’s not looking back either. It wasn’t a protest. Not really. But he is tired and frustrated.

He worked on budget issues and just cannot stomach how the Republicans have lost all restraint when it comes to spending. “I understand the political realities involved,” he says. “But still…”

He got tired of supporting–or even pretending to support–the mammoth spending bills that Congress was producing and the White House was signing. “Someone else is going to have to be the good soldier,” he says now.

He isn’t alone in his frustration. Throughout the administration, many conservatives are living Thoreau’s life of “quiet desperation.” Deeply committed to limited government, they now find themselves part of a government that spends with the best of them, creates new agencies and writes expansive new laws. And they don’t know what to do.

As the Washington Post reported recently, “[F]ederal discretionary spending expanded by 12.5 percent in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, capping a two-year bulge that saw the government grow by more than 27 percent.” That compares to an average of 2.4 percent annual growth during the 1990s. War spending and homeland defense account for some of the recent increase but not all. Nonmilitary, non-emergency discretionary spending has shot up 7.9 percent. The Republican Party has no one to blame but itself for this since it now controls both the White House and Congress.

Retroactively, the Republicans have actually managed to make President Clinton’s claim that he ended “the era of big government” seem plausible. The era of big government arguably came after Clinton left. For the administration’s believers in smaller government this turn of events is agonizing. And there’s plenty more coming that will grow government even further. So bad is the situation that some administration conservatives actually find themselves secretly rooting for Democratic Senate filibusters to derail expensive bills.

As one conservative who works in the Department of Energy put it, there’s “nothing” in the energy bill Congress hopes to finish this week but subsidies for the energy industry. But the White House wants it. He hopes congressional gridlock will kill it.

The good soldier wishes for the same thing with the Medicare prescription drug bill. He thinks it’s an insanely expensive giveaway to wealthiest part of the country–seniors. And the chances that it’ll only cost the advertised $400 billion over ten years are nil, he says.
But now, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., may be the only thing standing between it and enactment.

These conservatives are not fools or naïfs. They know politics requires appeasing various interests and this kind of log-rolling is a tradition as old as politics itself. They are willing to sometimes holding their nose for the greater good of the cause.

One former White House staffer just shrugs, sighs and says, “What can you do?” But the sheer accumulation of spending, giveaways and another “investments” is beginning to wear these true believers down. A hard-earned conservative reputation for fiscal restraint is being eroded. And the very foot soldiers the conservative movement relies upon to move its agenda through Capital Hill are losing faith.

Why, they ask themselves, has President Bush never vetoed a spending bill? Why is getting tough with appropriators and Washington lobbies so much harder for the White House than taking on terrorists? How much longer can we spend like this? They are good questions. The folks at the White House might want to think about them.

Sean Higgins writes for Investor’s Business Daily.