If President Bush has any virtues, surely none of them rhyme with fiscal responsibility. But that's exactly the argument David Brooks makes in this conversation with fellow New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

David Brooks: It has become common on the right to blast Bush for being a big government conservative. It's true the prescription drug bill was unpaid for, though I would mention the market elements in that reform have proven to be fantastically successful. Beyond that (and the small matter of the tax cuts, which Republicans are not complaining about) his administration was reasonably tight on spending. Deficits until the recession hit were less than 2 percent of G.D.P., not in the double digits as now. [My emphasis]

In other words: "Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?"

There are two problems with the last two sentences. First, the tax cuts are no "small matter." They are fundamental to our long-term deficit crisis. In the next 10 years their yearly impact on the deficit is projected to grow from about $350 billion to $700 billion.

Second, Brooks compares Bush deficits to Obama deficits as though each president was handed a blank slate and a piece of chalk and instructed to write down whatever deficit-GDP ratio he felt comfortable with. That is not how things work. The "Obama deficit" is basically a Bush deficit, with about $200 billion in counter-cyclical stimulus on top. There's an argument to be had about whether that money was spent prudently, but even a President McCain (or Bush) would have passed some sort of deficit-widening stimulus.

Where did our deficit come from? The Bush tax cuts accounted for about $350 billion of our deficit in 2009, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; depressed tax revenue hit another $500 billion; the bailout fund shepherded by Sec. Hank Paulson and other mandatory spending contributed another few hundred billion. So right there, Obama's deficit was $1 trillion even before it's technically Obama's.

It's one thing to pretend that Bush has nothing to do with the 2009 deficit. It's another to compare the 2009 deficit to the 2004 deficit for the purpose of making Bush look like a fiscal conservative. It's a bit like a mother who, after watching her son break a vase and hand the shattered shards to his sister, praises him for being so very careful around all the house's glassware. David Brooks is smarter than that mom, so why is he making that argument?

______

This graph (via the New York Times) is illustrative.

Source: New York Times analysis of Congressional Budget


We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.