Call it a midcourse correction, an evolution in policy or a chastened reversal in direction.
Regardless, President Bush’s decision last week to return to the United Nations for help in reconstructing Iraq rests on the same conclusion: Under his present policies, Bush doesn’t have the means to meet his ends in that nation. Bush needs thousands more troops to pacify Iraq. But the American military is already stretched too thin by obligations around the globe to meet the need itself.
Bush needs “several tens of billions” of dollars to rebuild Iraq’s crumbling economic and social infrastructure in the next year alone, said L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator there. But the record budget deficits confronting Washington make it impossible for the U.S. to meet those needs on its own.
Asking for help now from the same countries that last winter opposed the war and were scorned as tired “Old Europe” by the administration could not have been easy for the president.
The neoconservatives who have dominated the administration’s foreign policy thinking believe that it’s more important for America to act decisively, alone if necessary, than to build consensus among allies. Bush had to recognize that reengaging the U.N. would give ammunition to those who argue that such an approach was always doomed to failure -- a group that prominently includes the nine Democrats who want his job.
Given all the political and ideological arguments against changing direction, it’s reasonable to assume that Bush only returned to the U.N. because he believed he had no other viable option for obtaining the troops, and money, he needs to stabilize Iraq. In other words, in Iraq, reality trumped ideology.
Maybe it’s time for the same sort of midcourse correction at home, where Bush is also facing a huge shortfall between means and ends.
The president has a long list of domestic ambitions. He wants to steadily increase military spending. He wants to bolster homeland security. He wants to create a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare and has proposed tax credits to help those without health insurance obtain it. Eventually, he wants to restructure Social Security to add individual accounts that workers can invest in the stock market.
All of this will cost plenty. The price tag for the prescription drug benefit alone comes to $400 billion over the next decade. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says Bush’s long-term defense plans envision the Pentagon receiving about $80 billion a year more than it does now.
And it’s likely, on both defense and domestic needs, that Bush’s proposals are closer to the floor than the ceiling of the spending the political system will ultimately demand.
Pressure is developing in both parties to increase the size of the active military, which could swell spending even beyond the level Bush envisions.
Bipartisan commissions, like the recent Council on Foreign Relations panel chaired by Warren B. Rudman, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, have regularly concluded the U.S. must spend far more than the administration has proposed to upgrade the nation’s defenses against terrorism. In June, Rudman’s team said all levels of government need to spend $98 billion more than they budgeted over the next five years just to improve the capacity of first responders -- police officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel -- to react to another attack.
Social needs are clamoring for attention too. The Census Bureau is expected to report this month that the number of Americans without health insurance rose again last year, so pressure to help the uninsured will grow. As more schools fail to meet the standards established by the education reform law Bush signed last year, demands for more spending on schools will increase as well. And once a prescription drug program is in place, seniors will inevitably win more generous benefits, raising the price.
And even as all of these needs cascade on Washington, the cupboard is bare.
Under the pressure of recession, the aftereffects of 9/11, the war in Iraq and the cost of Bush’s huge tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, the federal government this year is facing its largest deficit ever -- just more than $400 billion, the Congressional Budget Office said.
It projects that the deficit next year will soar to $480 billion. And when the costs of occupying Iraq, providing a prescription drug benefit and extending Bush’s tax cuts are included, it envisions deficits exceeding $300 billion a year into the distant horizon, even after the economy recovers.
Bush defenders like to say that, measured as a share of the economy, these deficits are smaller than those under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But that’s only because today’s deficits are mitigated by the huge surpluses accumulating in Social Security until baby boomers retire. Take that money out of the equation, and the deficit next year will equal 5.6% of the gross national product, a level exceeded only once since World War II.
What’s more, for average families, the tax cuts that helped dig this hole were a solution in search of a problem. Last month, with almost no attention, the Congressional Budget Office released a study revealing that the federal income tax rate on all but the top fifth of families was lower in 2000 than it was in 1979. For middle-income families, the income tax rate was one-third lower in 2000 than 21 years ago.
Remember, that was before the Bush tax cuts.
The conclusion is becoming unavoidable that Bush’s repeated tax cuts are leaving Washington without the means to meet its ends. Next year, the federal government is projected to take in revenue equal to just 16.2% of the economy. That’s the lowest level since 1959 -- long before Medicare, Medicaid and large-scale federal aid to schools, much less a massive obligation to strengthen homeland defenses and rebuild Iraq.
Surely it wouldn’t be easy for Bush to acknowledge that his tax-cut agenda has left Washington without the funds to meet his other goals. But could it really be more difficult than rattling the tin cup for Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder?
Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ Web site at www.latimes.com/brownstein.