Dubya vs. Reagan: A Size of Government Contest
Dubya vs. Reagan: A Size of Government Contest
Comparing RR and GWB on federal spending.
At first blush, conservatives debating whether Ronald Reagan was a better
foe of big government than George W. Bush can sound like obsessive
comic-book fans arguing in their parents' basements about whether Superman
was stronger than the Incredible Hulk. But as 2008 approaches and the Right
becomes more reflective-as opposed to reflexively defensive-in its
assessment of our 43rd president, such discussions will play an important
The debate is already intensifying. Fred Barnes recently compared Reagan and
Bush at year six in a piece for The Weekly Standard. He implies in his new
book Rebel-in-Chief that Dubya's conservatism is superior to Reagan's.
Conservative columnist and former think-tanker Bruce Bartlett disagrees. The
subtitle of his forthcoming book Impostor claims that Bush "Bankrupted
America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."
The conventional wisdom that President Bush is Reagan 2.0 has given way to
detailed looks at some of the contrasts between the two chief executives.
Even on foreign policy, observers have noticed ground between Reagan's
shining city on a hill and Bush's "take that hill," between peace through
strength and peace through pre-emption. But the differences are perceived to
be the greatest on size-of-government issues.
Over at TCS Daily, Ryan Sager reported from the 33rd annual Conservative
Political Action Conference, "Everyone wants to be Reagan's heir. Absolutely
no one wants to be George W. Bush's" on domestic policy. This prompted John
McIntyre at RealClear Politics to recall Reagan-era deficit spending and
suggest that anti-Bush budget hawks are engaging in revisionist history when
they point to the 1980s as a golden era of fiscal rectitude.
Both Reagan and the current occupant of the White House disappointed fiscal
conservatives on federal spending (at least fiscal conservatives should have
been disappointed). They both presided over large deficits, escalating
outlays and the addition of another Cabinet-level department. But the end
result isn't exactly a wash, as some would have it.
Under Reagan, federal spending as a percentage of GDP fell slightly. It has
increased under Bush. This is not purely attributable to post-9/11 defense
and homeland-security needs; spending outside these areas rose from 12.8
percent of the economy in 2001 to 14.5 percent in 2005. Setting aside the
question of whether all homeland-security spending actually goes toward
securing the homeland, even excluding such expenditures non-defense
discretionary spending is up nearly 30 percent.
In a policy analysis for the Cato Institute, Veronique de Rugy and Tad
DeHaven compared the two presidents' records on real non-defense
discretionary spending. Bush outspent Reagan in nine of 11 categories. Where
such spending fell 14 percent during Reagan's first term, it rose 18 percent
in Bush's-"a whopping 32 percent difference between the two men," de Rugy
and DeHaven noted.
Overall, Bush has worsened Medicare's solvency crisis with the addition of
an unfunded prescription drug benefit-the biggest new entitlement since the
Great Society-while surpassing LBJ's increase in total real outlays. While
Reagan occasionally vetoed excessive spending bills, Bush's veto pen has
been missing in action as a Republican Congress has gone on a pork feeding
This is not to soft-pedal Reagan's flawed record on spending. While Bush has
amassed deficits of a greater absolute size, Reagan's average deficit was
larger as a percentage of GDP, peaking at 6.3 percent in 1983. During the
Reagan years, the federal budget surpassed $1 trillion for the first
time-rapidly closing in on $2.8 trillion today-and the national debt more
than doubled. Although federal revenues increased despite lower marginal
income tax rates, as the supply-siders predicted, federal spending grew even
It's also worth noting that as bad as Bush has been on spending-proposing
expensive new programs, endorsing government growth and refusing to impose
discipline on profligate appropriators-Congress has often been worse. The
GOP majority hasn't been reluctant to outspend the president's budget
Both these caveats should raise red flags. First, the deficits of the 1980s
and early '90s seriously undermined the Reagan project. The red ink was used
to paint a caricature of tax cuts as irresponsible fiscal policy and
eventually marginal tax rates crept up to 39.6 percent. Even after almost
annual tax cuts from the Bush administration, the top rate is still higher
than when Bill Clinton took office.
It didn't have to be this way. As David Frum noted in Dead Right, had
federal spending grown no faster than inflation in the decade between 1979
and 1989, the Reagan tax cuts and defense build-up still would have left
over a budget surplus large enough to abolish the corporate income tax or
slash Social Security taxes by one-third. By letting spending rise on auto
pilot, Bush risks endangering his own tax cuts-especially if new broad-based
taxes are needed to prop up bankrupt entitlement programs.
Second, Bush's lack of philosophical commitment to limited government has
set the tone in Washington, where the GOP was losing its will on spending
before Clinton left town. Rhetoric matters, and there the divide between
Reagan and Bush becomes a yawning chasm. Bush has for the most part
carefully distanced himself from the conservative anti-statism of Reagan and
Goldwater. It's hard to imagine Reagan ever saying, as Bush did in 2003,
that government has got to move whenever somebody hurts. It was a recent
Democratic president who was interested in feeling our pain.
Bush may not be to blame for the big-government/K Street axis the
congressional GOP has built. But he has done nothing to correct this axis'
destructive departures from conservatism. Instead he has worked overtime to
give them a compassionate conservative veneer.
Neither Reagan nor Bush has delivered the smaller federal government that
conservatives have claimed to favor since at least the 1930s. But Reagan did
leave behind a substantially freer American economy than the one he found;
his gains have sometimes been eroded, but never reversed. As taxpayers count
the cost of Bush's big-government conservatism, this fact may make comparing
Reagan and Dubya seem like a less esoteric exercise.RESPECT LIFE: From Womb to Tomb! ~mary~