Yesterday's absurd conspiracy theory about the Bush administration has a way of turning into today's conventional wisdom. Remember when people were ridiculed for claiming that Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, eager to fight a war, were hyping the threat from Iraq?
Anyway, many analysts now acknowledge that the administration never had any intention of pursuing a conventionally responsible fiscal policy. Rather, its tax cuts were always intended as a way of implementing the radical strategy known as "starve the beast," which views budget deficits as a good thing, a way to squeeze government spending. Did I mention that the administration is planning another long-run tax cut next year?
Advocates of the starve-the-beast strategy tend to talk abstractly about "big government." But in fact, squeezing government spending almost always means cutting back or eliminating services people actually want (though not necessarily programs worth their cost). And since it's Veterans Day, let's talk about how the big squeeze on spending may be alienating a surprising group: the nation's soldiers.
One of George W. Bush's major campaign themes in 2000 was his promise to improve the lives of America's soldiers — and military votes were crucial to his success. But these days some of the harshest criticisms of the Bush administration come from publications aimed at a military audience.
For example, last week the magazine Army Times ran a story with the headline "An Act of `Betrayal,' " and the subtitle "In the midst of war, key family benefits face cuts." The article went on to assert that there has been "a string of actions by the Bush administration to cut or hold down growth in pay and benefits, including basic pay, combat pay, health-care benefits and the death gratuity paid to survivors of troops who die on active duty."
At one level, this pattern of cuts is standard operating procedure. Just about every apparent promise of financial generosity this administration has made (other than those involving tax cuts for top brackets and corporate contracts) has turned out to be nonoperational. No Child Left Behind got left behind — or at least left without funds. AmeriCorps got praised in the State of the Union address, then left high and dry in the budget that followed. New York's firefighters and policemen got a photo-op with the president, but very little money. For that matter, it's clear that New York will never see the full $20 billion it was promised for rebuilding. Why shouldn't soldiers find themselves subject to the same kind of bait and switch?
Yet one might have expected the administration to treat the military differently, if only as a matter of sheer political calculation. After all, the military needs some mollifying: the Iraq war has turned increasingly nightmarish, and deference toward the administration is visibly eroding. Even Pfc. Jessica Lynch has, to her credit, balked at playing her scripted role.
So what's going on? One answer is that once you've instilled a Scrooge mentality throughout the government, it's hard to be selective. But I also suspect that a government of, by and for the economic elite is having trouble overcoming its basic lack of empathy with the working-class men and women who make up our armed forces.
Some say that Representative George Nethercutt's remark that progress in Iraq is a more important story than deaths of American soldiers was redeemed by his postscript, "which, heaven forbid, is awful." Your call. But it's hard to deny the stunning insensitivity of President Bush's remarks back on July 2: "There are some who feel like that, you know, the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring 'em on. We got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." Those are the words of a man who can't imagine himself or anyone close to him actually being in the line of fire.
The question is whether the military will start to feel taken for granted. Publications like Army Times are obviously going off the reservation. Retired military officers, like Gen. Anthony Zinni — formerly President Bush's envoy to the Middle East — have started to offer harsh, indeed unprintable, assessments of administration policies. If this disillusionment spreads to the rank and file, the politics of 2004 may be very different from what anyone expects.
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.11.03