George Bush has turned out to be the master of misunderestimation. Following the 2006 election, Democrats crowed over President Bush's lame-duck status, insisting that they now controlled the agenda on all fronts and that Bush should commence capitulation as quickly as possible to avoid the pain of humiliation. Almost a year later, the Democrats have lost on almost every major issue, and on the one agenda item they won -- a minimum-wage increase -- they won it by attaching to their biggest loss of all, the supplemental for Iraq War spending.
Now it looks like they face another fight with Bush, and this time he will likely have the nation on his side:
The White House and Congress are heading for what President Bush predicts will be a "fiscal showdown" at a time when the nation's financial health has actually improved for the moment.
After years of record-high deficits, both parties are now projecting that the budget can be balanced by 2012. But as each side seeks to outmaneuver the other politically heading into next year's elections, the rhetorical battle between Bush and lawmakers over spending has never been more heated.
Bush used an appearance here Monday to chastise Democratic leaders for failing to send him even one of the 12 annual spending bills more than two weeks into the new fiscal year, and he eagerly vowed to veto what he deems excessive spending. Democrats fired back by highlighting the one veto Bush has exercised: the rejection of a dramatic expansion of a popular children's health insurance program.
The backdrop for this confrontation belies its intensity. Just last week, the Office of Management and Budget reported that the deficit in the 2007 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, fell to $163 billion, barely half of what it was two years ago and the lowest in five years. While still a hefty chunk of money, the deficit now represents just 1.2 percent of the overall economy, lower than the average rate over the past four decades.
The appropriations bills had a deadline of September 30th. Last year at this time, the Democrats had castigated the Republicans for failing to deliver all of the appropriations on time; this year, all of the bills have yet to get a floor vote. The government has continued operating on supplementals, which freeze spending at the prior year's levels. That might help with the deficits, but it doesn't help Congress get its pet spending projects into place, and the frustration will no doubt erupt shortly.
The White House has the winning hand in this debate. There are few people in America who thinks the government doesn't spend enough money, and vast multitudes who think they spend far too much, regardless of priorities. Democrats hoped to embarrass Bush on S-CHIP, but as a USA Today poll discovered, people also don't want the federal government to subsidize middle-class health care.
The Democrats misunderstood the message of 2006. Voters wanted an end to spending and corruption, not an amplification of either or both. Republicans lost in Congress because they acted like Democrats, spending like drunken sailors. Now they want to attack Bush by spending even more wildly than the Republicans and expect him to retreat, but Bush has finally found a hill on which he can fight successfully. The S-CHIP debate showed that, and the budget-busting proposals from the Democrats will return the GOP to the side of fiscal responsibility in 2008.
Of course, that assumes that the Democrats actually generate the spending bills at all before the next recess. So far, they seem very reluctant to reveal their spending plans. Perhaps they learned something after all...