Jonah Goldberg of National Review thinks Mitt Romney should "turn the tables" on President Barack Obama by joining him in criticizing George W. Bush as a big spender.
"Focused on fighting a war, Bush -- never a tightwad to begin with -- handed the keys to the Treasury to Tom DeLay and Denny Hastert, and they spent enough money to burn a wet mule," Mr. Goldberg wrote. "On Bush's watch, education spending more than doubled, the government enacted the biggest expansion in entitlements since the Great Society [Medicare Part D], and we created a vast new government agency [the Department of Homeland Security]."
At first glance, Mr. Goldberg's indictment seems all too true. In the eight fiscal years attributed to the Bush presidency, spending rose from $2.471 trillion to $3.518 trillion, an average annual increase of 5.3 percent.
Mr. Bush looks really bad compared to Democrat Bill Clinton. During the eight fiscal years attributed to Mr. Clinton's presidency, spending rose from $2.109 trillion to $2.326 trillion, an average annual increase of 1.29 percent.
But this is misleading. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1 of the year preceding, so for eight of the last 12 months of a president's tenure, his successor is in the White House. Most of the time this doesn't matter much, because in that first fiscal year, the new president usually just tinkers a little with his predecessor's budget.
It mattered a lot in fiscal year 2009, because Mr. Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill and his auto company bailouts are attributed to Mr. Bush. If these are factored out, spending by the Bush administration rose just 4.4 percent a year. But that's still a lot.
The biggest increases were in Mr. Bush's last two years, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. In fiscal years 2008 and 2009, spending rose by an average of 12.1 percent a year. In the first six fiscal years of the Bush presidency, when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, spending rose by an average of just 2.75 percent a year.
Still, in the six fiscal years of the Clinton presidency when Republicans controlled both houses of Congress (fiscal year 1996-2001), spending rose by an average of just 1.5 percent a year.
Like Mr. Goldberg, I assumed this was because of Mr. Bush's domestic spending initiatives, and because Republicans in Congress went hog wild on earmarks, which rose from 2,000 in 1994 (the last year of Democrat control) to 14,000 in 2005.
I was wrong. During the Bush years in which Republicans also controlled Congress, $438 billion was spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and on enhanced security measures pertaining to the war on terror. All other federal spending increased just $126 billion, an average of just 0.9 percent a year.
Wars are expensive, as Mr. Obama is finding out in Afghanistan. He spent $118.6 billion there in the last fiscal year, more than double the $43.5 billion Mr. Bush spent on the Afghan war in fiscal year 2008, the last full year for which he was responsible.
The Congressional Research Service estimates total spending on the war on terror from 9/11 through the end of this fiscal year at $1.415 trillion. That's a lot of money -- but it's just 4.1 percent of the $34.17 trillion the federal government spent during that period.
The drop in spending for Iraq has been greater than the increase in Afghanistan, and defense spending overall is declining. So domestic programs account for all of the gargantuan increase in spending under Mr. Obama.
The federal government is expected to spend $3.796 trillion in the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. That's 81.3 percent more than was spent in fiscal year 2008, when spending for the Iraq war was at its height. So when Mr. Obama blames Mr. Bush for the surge in spending, he's lying. And when liberals blame our mammoth deficits on the cost of war, they're lying.
Still, Mr. Bush spent too much. Medicare was going broke, so it was unwise to add $107 billion a year to its cost. The Department of Homeland Security will spend about $56.9 billion this year, mostly to harass air travelers. Test scores still stink, even though federal spending on education has doubled.
So Mr. Goldberg gave Mr. Romney good advice -- just not as good as it seems at first.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1476. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/