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It has become conservatives’ equivalent of handshakes at a union hall. Professing aversion to government and venom toward taxes before the right-wing rank-and-file is a set piece of Republican presidential primaries. Though a gimmick, the anti-tax, anti-government message resonates with donors and diehard GOP voters and has become a badge of the seriousness, even suitability, of the party’s presidential aspirants.
But the mounting cost of the Iraq war is playing havoc with this hallowed gesture of GOP statecraft. An administration that holds nothing sacred but its own power to evade the law and make war as it pleases is about to sacrifice this sacred cow of conservative politics on the altar of its fiscal incompetence.
With nearly $370 billion of taxpayers’ money spent so far and at least $8 billion more gouged from Americans each month to pay for it, the Iraq war makes a mockery of plans by Republican ‘08 candidates for any other major use of federal power. Despise and disparage LBJ as they do, the leading candidates of the party that for years boasted of its big ideas now can’t even joke about a Great Society. They’re stuck defending Bush’s glum society.
One albatross around their necks is the 363 tons of U.S. currency flown in 2004 from the Federal Reserve to Iraq. There a cast of GOP flunkies frittered it away on the very “nation-building” that their party was on record condemning in its 2000 platform. Ordinarily a disclosure that $8.8 billion in cash had disappeared into a foreign money pit might prompt outcries by conservatives and apoplexy on the anti-tax fringe. But Dan Burton (R‑Ind.), who purports to be an ambassador from that realm, pooh-poohed the revelation, saying criticism simply “isn’t, in my opinion, constructive.”
For all their insults to common sense, the administration and its apologists can’t entirely conceal the domestic toll of their boondoggle. In February, Bush’s brain trust relented and included some war costs in their overall budget. But so alarming are the cuts proposed to offset Iraq that even Republicans are wincing at the $78 billion reductions in Medicaid, Medicare and children’s health that the White House announced in its budget. “The final document may look very different,”’ Sen. Mike Enzi (R‑Wyo.) told Bloomberg, refusing to defend the president.
Democrats are winning the sound-bite contest, hands down. Usually staid Bay-Area elder statesman Rep. Pete Stark (D‑Calif.), a Unitarian and Air Force veteran, waxed militant about Bush’s misguided aims and refusal to cooperate with Congress. The president, he told the Associated Press, “is declaring war on us and the poor people of this country.” Helping to make Stark’s point were press reports about squalid conditions afflicting soldiers getting outpatient treatment at Walter Reed hospital in Washington.
Their misery has a context. Bush inherited a budget surplus of nearly $300 billion and has sunk the federal government into a deficit exceeding that amount. More than the national balance sheet has gone kaput. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states are expected to face deficits in the 2008 fiscal year, up from 10 in 2007.
How do dire straits in state and federal funding connect to the war? Higher education is the thread. And war costs are fraying the lifeline. A study by William O’Hare and Bill Bishop for the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute finds that soldiers from rural areas enjoy fewer nonmilitary options for education and career mobility and have a 60 percent higher death rate in Iraq than soldiers from cities and suburbs. They note, “The opportunity differential between rural and urban America is probably higher now than at any time in the past. Our study highlights the price some young folks and their families are paying for lack of opportunity in rural America.”
Of course, many Americans, including my own friends and relatives from rural America, have served ably and survived their tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the statistics tell an eerie story. Vermont, for instance, has the highest death rate of rural soldiers in Iraq. It also has the highest tuitions of any state in the nation. Access to higher education, one of the first areas to take the severest hits as states deal with deficits, is a direct link in the path from battered budgets to diminished options to battlefield service.
One state that beat its deficit did so only by kicking its fat-cat, anti-tax political bosses to the curb. In November 2005, Colorado voters scaled back state tax limits put in place in 1992. The result allowed for renewal of basic services, like immunizations, road and bridge repair, and, most notably, higher education. For 13 years before the reprieve, the hope of affordable higher education for many middle class families underwent a quiet strangulation at the hands of the same coalition of religious extremists and anti-tax harpies who dominate the national GOP nomination process. Their patron saint, Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, hates government so much he once vowed “to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
By tying up the state in a fiscal straitjacket, war encourages such foul play on the home front. This fact helps explain why members of the far-right Council on National Policy, a who’s‑who of religious extremists that Norquist helps steer, find a silver lining in the Iraq fiasco.
The consequences of their credo go beyond the ghoulish irony of so-called pro-lifers cheering an escalation of war. In fiscal terms, they prioritize tax cuts over classrooms, payola to local warlords over levee repair and lifting the minimum wage. They further the careers of politicians who sell the same grim tradeoffs as a form of patriotism. They legitimate the death of the American dream.
So enamored is this claque with candidates who echo their own amens that they have lost track of the human impact of their ideology. As a result, they and their party stand to lose their hold on the levers of executive power they have clung to for much of the past 27 years.
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