You crack me up, George


George W. Bush brought his self-caricature to the Republican-friendly northwest corner of Arkansas last week.

They unfurled a banner behind him. This one, saying "fiscal responsibility," was laughable, as opposed to that last one, "mission accomplished," which was cry-able.

The president had what his people called a "town meeting," but which actually was a highly structured and mostly scripted remote studio production.

The local Republicans and the local Chamber of Commerce filled the room with specially invited friends who would ask questions either sweet, adoring or, if at all challenging, respectfully so.

They could have staged this show in any room anywhere. But the White House wanted to make it appear the president was out among the people. So it plopped down in this particularly conservative area because of the reduced likelihood of angry demonstrators and because the region is prosperous, thus representative of Bush's arguable contention that the economy is good.

If there are two things the right and left can agree on, and they would be the only two, they are these: The mission in Iraq was not accomplished and Bush has not been fiscally responsible.

Liberals and Democrats believe that Bush -- through tax cuts and warring -- has been fiscally irresponsible in squandering the debt-reducing surplus bequeathed him by Bill Clinton.

Conservatives believe Bush has been fiscally irresponsible by obliging federal business as usual while creating a new entitlement, prescription drug coverage in Medicare, without paying for it.

In this unique, perhaps magical, instance, both sides are right. The self-avowed "uniter" has unified American opinion about something, that being that he is a fiscal train wreck.

So you're wondering what Bush could possibly have been relying on when he preached and preened beneath a banner crowing fiscal responsibility.

Was he being intentionally ironic? Making a joke?

No. He was advancing two points.

One was that the new estimate of the annual federal budget deficit is down nearly by half, to $168 billion or so, which represents a lower percentage of GDP than the average deficit over the last four decades.

The only thing that means is that the revenue-producing elements of our mixed-signals economy are healthier than the year before. It has nothing to do with spending restraint, policy action or newly credible budgeting.

Bush says it's attributable to growth caused by his tax cuts. But his tax cuts were well into effect in years with higher deficits. We're dealing with fluctuations, not patterns.

So this was Bush's other point last week: Look out, because he's decided, seven years too late for his conservative flank, to get tough on the budget.

He's already vetoed expanded health insurance for kids. He'd never before vetoed a congressional spending bill. But now, all of a sudden, as a lame duck with but months left, he vows to veto a good half-dozen if he doesn't like them. We conceivably could be looking at government shutdowns.

These bills to be sent him by a Democratic Congress will not vary significantly from those sent him over the years by a Republican Congress, except that they'll show a little more restraint on things like earmarks and a little more compassion on things like children's health insurance. Yet they're apt to get vetoed instead of rubber-stamped.

Laughable? Sure. Everything's relative. Living a while longer on our credit cards, borrowing to pay the interest on borrowing, and pretending all of a sudden that we're austere -- it's funnier than war, at least.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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