IN THE ROSE GARDEN on Tuesday morning, a reporter asked President Bush, "Are you still a conservative?" The president's reply: "Am I what?"
Bush's surprise at the question is understandable. It's mind-boggling to think that anyone would challenge the president's credentials on that score, given his stand on taxes, government regulation, school vouchers and other key political barometers.
Lately, however, the burgeoning federal deficit has some critics on the right practically threatening to kick the president out of the club and change the secret handshake.
The administration's promise of a seemingly open checkbook to the Gulf Coast communities devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita has amplified those complaints. For example, Republican stalwart Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan, wrote a column last month saying: "We did not understand [Bush's compassionate conservatism] to mean never vetoing a spending bill. We did not understand it to mean a historic level of spending."
The president defended himself at his news conference Tuesday, saying he wanted to offset the spending on hurricane relief largely by cutting benefit programs by $187 billion over 10 years. But Bush wasn't proposing any new cuts, just referring to the ones he had suggested in February, when he submitted his budget to Congress. And he failed to mention that his budget also called for more than $50 billion worth of increases in those programs. By the Congressional Budget Office's calculations, the actual savings over 10 years would be a little more than $100 billion.
Never mind that the bulk of the reductions would come after Bush left office. The bigger problem is that lawmakers have already thumbed their noses at many of the proposed changes, which include lower Medicaid drug reimbursements to pharmacies, smaller subsidies for banks making student loans, higher pension-insurance premiums for employers and reduced farm supports. The budget reconciliation bill that's pending in Congress would cut $35 billion from benefit programs over five years, only half of what Bush had sought.
With the floodwaters from Katrina and Rita still lingering in New Orleans, it may be too soon to expect the president to come up with new ways to pay for the relief efforts, whose estimated cost runs between $100 billion and $200 billion. And Congress clearly shares responsibility for the red ink flooding the nation's capital.
But Bush, who has yet to veto or rescind any spending approved on Capitol Hill, is hardly providing much leadership when it comes to trimming government. Further, his use of utterly fanciful numbers to justify his spending proposals for the Gulf Coast don't instill confidence that he has a handle on the problem.