Investigating a Meme

One thing I’ve heard recently from some is that Bush never really ran as a “small government conservative” (link, link). The problem is I think Bush did try to portray himself as a small government, or at least, a smaller government conservative.

Take for example Bush’s acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican convention.

The last time taxes were this high as a percentage of our economy, there was a good reason; we were fighting World War II. Today our high taxes fund a surplus. Some say that growing federal surplus means Washington has more money to spend.

But they’ve got it backwards. The surplus is not the government’s money; the surplus is the people’s money.


Big government is not the answer, but the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference. It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.

Then there is this speech as well,

Yogi Berra once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” (Laughter.) Now, we come to a fork in the road; we have two choices. Even though we have already met our needs, we could spend the money on more and bigger government. That’s the road our nation has traveled in recent years.

Last year, government spending shot up 8 percent. That’s far more than our economy grew, far more than personal income grew, and far more than the rate of inflation. If you continue on that road, you will spend the surplus and have to dip into Social Security to pay other bills. (Applause.) Unrestrained government spending is a dangerous road to deficits, so we must take a different path. (Applause.) The other choice is to let the American people spend their own money to meet their own needs. (Applause.)

And we have more with this speech,

One of the main reasons why we insisted that people get money back was to provide a second wind for our economy. And the other reason why is because we recognize that these good folks spend their money just as wisely, if not more wisely, than the Government can.


Well, you know, there’s a lot of people still want to politicize the budget. They like the old-time wars of zero-sum politics. There are a lot of big spenders, a lot of highly partisan people that really didn’t like the tax cut to begin with. They want the Government to have the people’s money. They believe in bigger Government.

And all I do is rest my case with the people. And the people wanted tax relief. The people want fiscal sanity in Washington. The people want all the money going into Medicare to be spent on Medicare, and that’s what my budget does. And people also want a good defense for our country. And I hope, at the very minimum, the leadership in the Congress will give us the Defense appropriation number and the Education appropriation number early in the process, so that we don’t rob defense or rob education by holding those appropriation bills late.

And even more with this quote from a speech in 2002,

The best way to encourage economic vitality and growth is to let people keep their own money.When you spend your own money, somebody’s got to manufacture that which you’re spending it on. You see, more money in the private sector circulating makes it more likely that our economy will grow. And, incredibly enough, some want to take away part of those tax cuts. They’ve been reading the wrong textbook. You don’t raise somebody’s taxes in the middle of a recession. You trust people with their own money. And, by the way, that money isn’t the government’s money; it’s the people’s money.

I’m sure if I kept looking I’d find even more references.

Further, I’d argue that statements like “people spend their money more wisely than the government” implies rather strongly a smaller less intrusive government. In hearing these kinds of things I think it is not unreasonable to draw a conclusion that Bush at least made a pretense of supporting less government intervention in the economy. However, what we got is precisely what Fred Barnes calls a Big Government Conservative and Bush was being at least somwhat misleading in his speeches and continues to do so to this day.

FILED UNDER: Congress, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. RiverRat says:

    Actually, what we got was a classic liberal in the mode of JFK or his own father. Bush was never a small government fiscal conservative or a libertarian, he couldn’t have been and won, by a hair, in 2000. Triangulation from the right.

  2. Alan says:

    It used to be “limited” government. But that didn’t gel well with the social conservatives. So now it’s “small” or “smaller” government.

  3. McCain says:

    Steve, that’s always the way I’ve seen it as well. We ended up with a conservative imposter, although the suspicious “compassionate” conservative mantra always implied something squishy about government.

  4. just me says:

    I think Bush was mostly half a small government conservative. I think he believed in lower taxes and less business regulation, but in other stuff, especially social programs/education he came across as not so small government.

    So, I think it is more apt to say he was for smaller government than traditional liberals prefer, but not as small as conservatives.

  5. Bush has been very consistent on his call for reduced taxes. What he has not been as consistent on is reducing the size of government. The NCLB and prescription drug plans were specific programs that he campaigned on. I will give him a pass on defense spending increases for obvious reasons. Likewise, special expenditures like for Katrina rebuilding are also understandable (though I can grant we could argue about the amount). There are also the the examples of the social security where he tried but failed to implement a change.

    Outside of those examples (implementation of specific campaign promises, were he tried to implement a change but was stymied or unforeseen events), can anyone tell me how much of the spending increase (not the deficit, but the spending increase) is from other than those examples? While I agree that Bush hasn’t been a small government exemplar (snort), most of what I know of that has increased spending is the “set programs” like medicare/SSA, implementing his campaign promises and defense spending. I would really be interested to hear of other significant spending.

    I know that earmarks are way up, but I mostly lay that at congresses feet, not Bush. Even so, I think earmarks is less than 1% of all spending, so is not likely the leading cause of spending increases. I may be wrong on that.

  6. Tano says:

    Bush is, and appeals to people who are, greed-based small government types, as opposed to libertarian-ideology based small government types. In other words, he wants smaller government because he wants to pay less taxes, not because he has any principled belief in smaller government on the philosophical level.

    As such, the impetus is strong to cut taxes, but there is much less of an urgency to cut spending. Spending is unpopular in theory, but very popular in practice. Plus, as an added benefit (actually as a sop to the true government-minimalists), running up the debt more tends to inhibit what the government may want to do in the longer term.

    Bush is a politician. What can be more appealing then giving the people a full range of government services, and cutting their taxes as well. The fact that their kids will end up paying the bills doesnt seem to pop up on the rather limited radar screen of most voters.

  7. Herb says:

    That’s the way to go. Keep bashing Bush. You and every American should thank the good lord that we don,t have that loony Tune Gore in office and that Kook Kerry as President.

    If those guys were there, we would all be Muslims by now.

  8. Bithead says:

    The word “limited” is itself a relative term.

    I am on record repeatedly as having indicated Bush is by no means a conservative, being at best, a centrist.. rather like his father. (Remember, Bush Sr was there to balance the Reagan ticket toward the center!) Which is precisely why I laugh out loud when I see those on the far left of trying to compare either 41 or 43 to the guy with the funny mustache.

    However, of the choices given Bush was the better of the two.

    During peacetime, after all, it’s not all that hard to project oneself as a “smaller government” person when the person that you’re running against is Al Gore, and the guy just leaving the office is Bill Clinton.

    That said, peacetime, ultimately, is not what we ended up with, was it?