HOW HE SEES IT President's team spins record shortfall



By STEPHEN WINN
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The GOP let go of its final, lingering pretensions as the party of fiscal responsibility when the White House recently predicted a record $445 billion budget deficit -- and hailed it as "good news."
How so? Let Joshua Bolten, White House budget director, explain:
"The good news is that it is much lower than we projected, (than) we or any of the other forecasters projected just six months ago."
Talk about setting a low bar for yourself. Does this mean that if the administration had made an even less accurate prediction half a year ago, this year's massive deficit would be even better news? Perhaps even "great news"?
Even budget experts long accustomed to fatuous fiscal claims were caught by surprise.
"They're claiming improvement?" asked an incredulous Kent Conrad, the top Democrat on the Senate Budget Committee. "That is utterly preposterous."
Oh, for the good old days of $200 billion deficits that, as budget hawks once lamented, seemed to stretch into the future "as far as the eye can see."
With the administration celebrating a $445 billion deficit, a few $200 billion deficits would look pretty good right now.
'Unwelcome'
Oddly enough, Bush's budget director also called the current deficit figures "unwelcome." So the administration is heralding good news, but it's unwelcome good news.
As Bolten searches for a coherent description of his feelings about the latest deficit numbers, the important point to keep in mind is that Bush once fervently promised no deficits at all.
During the 2000 campaign, Bush assured the country over and over again that the government had such large surpluses that he could easily increase spending on defense, improve Social Security and Medicare, tackle some other new priorities -- and that there would still be plenty "left over" for large tax cuts.
Dessert came first, of course. No sooner had Bush settled into the Oval Office than he moved the tax cuts, aimed mostly at the wealthy, to the top of his priority list.
Budget experts repeatedly warned Bush that he was making a huge mistake by treating long-range budget projections -- guesses, really -- as certainties.
Unforeseen events
They cautioned the new president about unforeseen events, rising health-care costs, the possibility of difficult economic times ... The list went on and on.
But Bush didn't listen, or simply fell back on irrelevant platitudes about economic growth and "the people's money."
He often talked as if huge sums of cash were piling up in the basement of the federal Treasury, although in fact the government was simply piling onto its already enormous debt.
His conservative cheerleaders in the press advised that deficits didn't matter, as if taxpayers weren't paying billions upon billions of dollars in interest every year on the federal debt. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly joined in the chorus, holding up the Reagan administration's deficits -- still unpaid, incidentally -- as an example to follow.
As the Bush deficits began to roll in, the president simply adjusted his rhetoric. He acknowledged that he was well into the red but offered various excuses and promised to do better. His deficits, he declared, would be small and short-lived.
Now they are larger than ever and, even under the administration's optimistic projections, stretch many years into the future.
Raw deficit numbers
Bush and his defenders argue that the raw deficit numbers aren't as bad when put in the proper perspective. When federal deficits are considered as a percentage of gross domestic product, Bolten claims, Bush's deficits are "well within historical range."
It's not clear what historical range he has in mind. Certainly Bush's record is terrible compared with the preceding eight years under President Clinton, even using the calculations Bolten wants to use.
And the administration, typically, is still leaving out some of its spending plans. The latest calculations do not include any additional spending in Iraq and Afghanistan after early next year.
"We will need additional money," Bolten said.
Now there's a promise we can count on.
X Stephen Winn is deputy editorial page editor at the Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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