The name of George W. Bush graces no chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The 43rd president left behind monumental deficits and an economy in tatters. Republicans hold him responsible for the party's straying from its alleged small-government ethic. They want the public to forget the man.
Thing is, the man wasn't the problem. His plan was the problem. And there is very little in the "new" Republican proposals that would change the plan. It's more tax cuts targeting the well-to-do, a bigger defense budget and less regulation. The one place Republicans suggest real change is in Medicare. Mitt Romney's pick for vice president, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, proposes a Medicare voucher system that would save money by making sure that taxpayer subsidies don't keep pace with projected health care costs.
There are less radical ways to curb soaring Medicare costs, but Ryan's idea does deserve half a credit for courage. It doesn't get a full credit for two reasons. One is it would not impose the voucher system on anyone 55 or older -- that is, for those who are really paying attention. The second reason is that it privatizes the hard conversations on what Medicare should offer, discussions the public should be having with their government. What privatizing coverage does is move the tough calls to insurance company executive suites, where the profit motive strongly favors denying care.
Another part of the Bush plan is a continued demonizing of government regulation. In the Bush years, weakened regulation led to billions being stolen in Iraq. It let Wall Street do as it pleased, including speculate with money backed by taxpayer guarantees. Lax regulations created the housing bubble: Government looked the other way as hucksters roped otherwise prudent Americans into abusive mortgage terms. Many foolish regulations no doubt fester and need the ax, but the Republicans' generalized hostility to the very concept of setting ground rules shows a party that learned little from the Bush fiasco.
It is unclear why folks demanding smaller government also want more defense spending. Ronald Reagan and Bush pushed for larger Pentagon budgets, as do Romney and Ryan today. The 2012 candidates would do us a service by explaining their case for bigger military budgets. David Stockman, a former Reagan budget director and critic of the Republican lust for military spending, recently noted that the defense budget today (after inflation) is almost double what it was when President Eisenhower left office and America faced a genuine Soviet nuclear threat.
Ryan styles himself the paragon of restored fiscal rectitude, but during the Bush years he voted for two unfunded wars, the Medicare drug benefit (entirely paid for with borrowed money) plus enormous tax cuts. We should note that a few principled Republicans opposed the tax cuts as fiscally reckless and the drug benefit as an expensive expansion of government. Not Paul Ryan, and also not House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, another self-proclaimed "young gun."
The Bush tax cuts drained the Treasury of money needed to pay for what the Republicans wanted, never mind the Democrats. Ryan now calls for even more tax cuts with the proviso that they be partly offset by closing loopholes. Broadening the tax base is not a bad idea, but Ryan's plan fails to impress because it does not specify what loopholes would go. How about doing away with the big popular deductions, like those for health coverage or mortgage interest? Ryan's lips are sealed.
So while the Tampa convention hosts no George W. Bush, it has his plan. More defense spending. Less regulation. More tax cuts for the upper incomes. As another famous Republican might have said: Here we go again.
A Commentary By Froma Harrop