It is the fate of all presidents to be compared to their predecessors. For several years, George W. Bush's analogies ran to the favorable, at least for some: Like Truman, he was forging a new foreign policy for a new age. Like Reagan, he was boldly spreading freedom to oppressed lands. Lately, however, Bush is more likely to find himself in the company of those chief executives whom historians tend to place on lists of America's worst: Buchanan, Hoover, Nixon. But those figures don't seem to haunt him nearly as much as another presidential specter--that of James Monroe. In his rush to improve his legacy, Bush seems eager to avoid joining Monroe as the two-term president with the least used veto pen. How else to explain his threat to veto nine of the twelve spending bills just passed by the House and currently under consideration by the Senate?
Bush has sent seven budgets to Capitol Hill. The six times those budgets were received by a Republicancontrolled Congress, legislators occasionally sent back spending bills that slightly exceeded his requests. Until now, this was never considered a grave threat to the fiscal health of the Republic--certainly not serious enough to merit a presidential veto. The current bills are no worse. They envision spending a total of
$22 billion more than Bush asked for. This amounts to less than 1 percent of the federal budget and is dwarfed by the more than $100 billion per year spent on the war in Iraq.
These veto threats would be less absurd if they came from a president with an established track record of fiscal responsibility. But Bush didn't hesitate to sign off on bloated spending bills--including a
$1.2 trillion Medicare prescription-drug benefit--when he thought it might help Republicans keep control of Congress. And now he whines about "irresponsible levels of spending" and threatens to bring the federal government to a standstill over a fraction of a percent of the budget?
The federal budget has grown at an average rate of 6.1 percent per year under Bush, twice the rate at which it grew under President Clinton. Conservatives often retort that the growth of government during the Bush administration is simply a function of spending on homeland security and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They're wrong: Even domestic non-homeland-security discretionary spending has risen faster under Bush than it did during the Clinton years. All this might be fine if he had deigned to pay for it. Instead, he opted for
$2 trillion worth of tax cuts.
None of which is to say that the
$22 billion in spending that has so offended the president is so vital to the commonweal-- there are a few pet congressional projects we'd like to see axed ourselves. But, by assuming the role of phony budget hawk, Bush might inflict real harm on Americans who depend on the federal government for critical services. Beyond the nine spending bills, yet another piece of legislation the president has threatened to veto is a measure reauthorizing the wildly popular and successful State Children's Health Insurance Program. The program is set to expire on September 30, so millions of low-income children could see their health insurance lapse unless Washington gets its act together. The reauthorization, which passed the Senate with a bipartisan majority, expands the program by a modest $7 billion a year in order to cover an additional four million children. And that sum was apparently enough to make Bush reach for his veto pen.
If the president wants to don the mantle of fiscal discipline, he will have to do more than excise a few billion dollars in spending. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that, if current taxation levels and spending formulas are kept in place, rapidly rising health care and Social Security costs will cause the national debt to increase from 37 percent of GDP today to a staggering 231 percent of GDP by 2050. Averting this budgetary meltdown cannot be done simply by chipping away at modest social programs--it is going to require tax increases. Regardless of what happens with the bills now in play, Bush will leave his successor a budget outlook far more dire than the one he inherited from Clinton.
At least with the veto, Bush will be one step further removed from the legacy of James Monroe. Not that that was ever a great danger. Monroe, after all, ratcheted down partisanship, ushering in the Era of Good Feelings. Needless to say, Bush's legacy will be different.
Free Larry Summers
Larry Summers is a cheerleader for terrorism; he boasts of his success in purging homosexuals from his midst; he brags of his desire to wipe the Jewish state from the map.
Wait, we must have confused the former Harvard president with the current Iranian one. And so must have someone else. How else can you explain the fact that, at the same time one major U.S. university lent a platform to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, another U.S. university denied a platform to Summers? Perhaps this is what is meant by intellectual diversity.
A day after Ahmadinejad addressed a crowd at Columbia University, Summers was supposed to speak before the University of California Board of Regents at a dinner in Sacramento. Summers, as you might recall, earned the enmity of a sizable portion of the professoriate by tentatively suggesting that innate gender differences might possibly explain the paucity of female scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Because of these comments from two years ago, a group of professors at UC Davis signed a petition demanding that the Regents rescind their invitation. The Regents quickly complied with the protesters' demands. Powerful men and women, these? Maybe, but also easily frightened.
It is lunacy that Summers, a truly brilliant social scientist, should have this kind of infamy. For starters, he only posited this theory for the gender gap as a possibility--and there's no reason why that kind of discussion of a complicated problem should be taboo. Then, there's the totality of Summers' presidency and the refreshingly energetic style that he brought to the job. He understood that there is a vast chasm in our best colleges and universities between students and faculty over the place of teaching in the academy. Harvard is an instance of a great institution where undergraduate teaching had simply become a secondary function. He also tackled matters most uncomfortable for lackluster teachers: the rigor mortis of narrowly defined disciplines in a world where those lines are more and more obsolete; the hostility of the humanities to the sciences; and the indifference to literacy and the arts of many scientists and technologists.
This was an exhilarating academic reform agenda--an agenda that students more easily appreciated than their elders. Some of the most infuriated faculty had the nerve to slime him as a racist for challenging their entrenched ways. But, when Larry Summers stood up to receive his honorary doctorate from Harvard this past June, the response from graduating seniors and others receiving their advanced degrees was ear-splitting applause. This wasn't an isolated outburst, but an omen of a growing student-tenured teacher divide that will increasingly define American universities.
In short, Summers has something to say about higher education that the UC Regents could certainly stand to hear. Alas, thanks to their cowardice, they probably won't ever hear it. That a group of powerful people like the Regents can be so easily intimidated shows the fragility of intellectual freedom at our universities. (The University of California, by the way, is the same institution that administered the anti-Communist blacklist in the 1950s and '60s.)
Ahmadinejad, with his pledge of genocide and sponsorship of attacks against American soldiers, arguably falls into the category of powerwielding crank who doesn't deserve any of the legitimacy that comes with such a prestigious platform. The Summers invitation, on the other hand, shouldn't be the stuff of controversy. And that Summers is the one deprived of a microphone tells you something is terribly amiss in the American academy.