When the Bush administration unveiled its proposed budget early last month, it made no provision at all for war with Iraq. At first, the White House defended this omission by asserting that war might not happen at all. "It would have been very unnatural," argued Budget Director Mitch Daniels on February 3, "to include costs for a conflict that Saddam Hussein could avert at any day by complying with the world community's eleven years of demands that he disarm." (Daniels said this one week after Hans Blix told the United Nations that Saddam was not complying with weapons inspectors and one day after The New York Times detailed the Pentagon's plan for war with Iraq.) After war became a certainty, the Bushies shifted to arguing that they couldn't provide a war estimate because, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it, "There's no calculation that you can do about all of these variables." This is roughly analogous to parents deciding they're not going to begin a college fund because they don't yet know what schools their kid will attend.
The suspicion all along was that the administration was delaying its war estimate until after Congress acceded to its proposed tax cuts. Last Friday, when a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer if Bush was postponing his request for war funding until Congress approved his budget, Fleischer replied, "No." Then, that very afternoon, the Senate voted down an amendment to halve the tax cut, apparently paving the way for Bush's plan. (A subsequent vote to shrink the tax cut this week came as a surprise.) On Monday, Bush promptly asked Congress for $75 billion to fight the war and begin postwar peacekeeping. Were the two events related? Not at all, insisted an administration official. Rather, the White House was suddenly able to estimate the war's cost because, "We found that there would not be an immediate surrender of the Iraq regime, that there would be some resistance," the official explained. Of course, this explanation came as the Pentagon was telling reporters that it had never assumed otherwise.
For months, there has been a widespread assumption in Washington that, once the war with Iraq is successfully completed, Republicans will use the patriotic afterglow to push through the most controversial elements of Bush's domestic agenda. What virtually no one imagined was that they would begin doing so as soon as the war began. The GOP strategy was set out by a Republican leadership aide speaking anonymously to Roll Call this week. "As one evaluates the next three weeks," the aide said, "you have got to say, `Okay, let's assume in a war context the public doesn't have an appetite for bickering and the president's approval is additional leverage."
One reason for the hurry may be that Democrats and even many moderate Republicans have somehow gotten the idea that it might not make sense to enact yet another huge tax cut as the country embarks upon a war of unknown cost or duration. "I'd put off a tax program until after the war," GOP Representative Amo Houghton recently told Congressional Quarterly. Senator John McCain called for a moratorium on any new tax cuts or major nondefense spending. The larger idea, of course, is that wars require some measure of public sacrifice--often tax increases and certainly not large tax cuts. The White House is trying to stamp out this disturbing outbreak of public-mindedness by making a fairly novel argument: It would be unpatriotic not to cut taxes. Wartime, according to this administration, demands that we put aside our partisan differences and unite behind the president so he can complete the crucial job of starving the government of the funds it needs to prosecute the war.
Asked a week ago about McCain's plan to postpone tax cuts until after the war, Fleischer replied that tax cuts would ensure that, "when the war is over, our military has jobs to come home to." Since this seems to be the administration's new line--Fleischer has repeated it twice more since--it is worth considering in all its glorious absurdity. First, soldiers aren't going to "come home" after the war the way they did after Vietnam. We now have an all-volunteer, professional army, and the administration is not proposing to shrink its size anytime soon. When the war is over, the soldiers will still have jobs as soldiers. Yes, reservists have been called up, but they have a legal right to resume whatever job they left.
Second, given that the administration's budget projects just one month of combat, the war will almost certainly have ended before the tax cuts are even signed into law, let alone have any effect on the economy. One provision of Bush's tax cut, for instance, would make the estate-tax repeal, scheduled to take effect in 2010, permanent. Now, Bush could honestly argue that those soldiers who serve for seven years and then come home and inherit multimillion-dollar fortunes should not have to pay any tax on their windfall. But doing so would deprive his position of its moral punch.
Republicans have also tried to whip wavering moderates into supporting tax cuts by stressing the need for national unity. "They're telling everybody to support the president in a time of war," GOP Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida told Congressional Quarterly. The notion that the successful prosecution of the war depends upon passing Bush's domestic agenda in toto may, too, seem counterintuitive at first. The best explication of how this dynamic would work came from Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. "When our troops are over there fighting," she said in a floor speech last week, "we don't want partisan bickering to be what they see on television from back home." Again, this incorporates a novel understanding of the American soldier. Troops in combat do not, after all, have much opportunity to watch television (and those who do presumably include relatively few c-span buffs). One might also assume that whatever tiny minority of troops has found a way to monitor the floor debate in Congress could, having experienced the grisly carnage of war, take in a contested Senate vote with some equanimity. But let us suppose that there are a greater number of debate-averse, emotionally delicate, news-junkie troops on the front line than one might expect. Surely, the best way to avoid upsetting them is not to ram through a controversial tax cut on a party-line vote, as the White House has sought to do, but instead to postpone the debate until after the war. Of course, that would raise a frightening prospect: debating the tax cut on its own merits.
This article originally ran in the April 7, 2003, issue of the magazine.