George W. Bush has calculated that the future does not vote. His Administration has abandoned its obligations to posterity, from the environment to the budget to Social Security to regulation affecting the health and safety of Americans in the emerging digital workplace. Moral lapses notwithstanding, Bill Clinton acted as a responsible steward in raising taxes on affluent Americans to balance the budget and begin to pay down the national debt—a process set in motion by George H.W. Bush and now reversed by George W. Bush. We judge parents by the sacrifices they make in their present comfort for the sake of their children's well-being and education. At a certain point a parent realizes that he lives—he certainly works—for his children. That is the big moral discovery of adult life, and we should hold to it in judging leaders. The family models the polity. The test we apply to parents—how responsibly they care for the next generation—should apply to presidents. Bush fails the test.
Fails it—and for what? To pay off campaign contributions from corporate polluters; to redirect the Social Security surplus to tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and to throw money at the Pentagon for Cold War weapons he criticized during the election campaign and for a missile-defense system against the menace posed by Iran and North Korea—improving relations with which would undercut the rationale for the system. The President's new budget, as Al Hunt pointed out in The Wall Street Journal recently, cuts health insurance for poor children; shifts "the major burden of funding" for toxic-chemical cleanups from chemical companies to taxpayers; includes the smallest increase in education spending in seven years; and cuts the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program while funding the Crusader, an eighty-ton howitzer designed to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe (and made by a defense contractor whose advisers include George H.W. Bush). The budget also seeks to make permanent the $1.3 trillion tax cut of 2001, a step that would cost an additional $343 billion in the first year of enactment and $4 trillion over the next decade.
The bad numbers indicate worse values. Bush's overriding domestic priority seems to be to empty the Treasury and endanger the retirement of a generation in order to benefit the few, the powerful, and the connected. This is Social Darwinist economics. If, to use the social historian Barrington Moore Jr.'s distinction, a "decent society" is one that seeks to mitigate the disadvantages conferred by nature, then Bush has set our course toward an indecent society, in which to those to whom much is given, more is given. That has been the pattern of his life. Ending the estate tax is Bush's signature achievement. Passed by Congress in 1916 to "break up the swollen fortunes of the rich," the estate tax gets all its revenue from the top 1.4 percent of estates (and two thirds from the top 0.2 percent)—roughly the Bush Christmas-card mailing list. The philosophy of the estate tax, the conservative financial writer James Glassman has said, is to "promote equality of opportunity." Equal opportunity can at best be approximated, Glassman added, "but why not use the tax code to discourage a gigantic head start?" But Bush does not see anything offensive to the democratic ethos in gigantic head starts. He wants to leave an America in his own image, a country of sons standing upon their fathers. He is governing from his biography.