The expansive agenda President Bush laid out at the Republican National Convention was missing a price tag, but administration figures show the total is likely to be well in excess of $3 trillion over a decade.
A staple of Bush's stump speech is his claim that his Democratic challenger, John F. Kerry, has proposed $2 trillion in long-term spending, a figure the Massachusetts senator's campaign calls exaggerated. But the cost of the new tax breaks and spending outlined by Bush at the GOP convention far eclipses that of the Kerry plan.
Bush's pledge to make permanent his tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of 2010 or before, would reduce government revenue by about $1 trillion over 10 years, according to administration estimates. His proposed changes in Social Security to allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds could cost the government $2 trillion over the coming decade, according to the calculations of independent domestic policy experts.
And Bush's agenda has many costs the administration has not publicly estimated. For instance, Bush said in his speech that he would continue to try to stabilize Iraq and wage war on terrorism. The war in Iraq alone costs $4 billion a month, but the president's annual budget does not reflect that cost.
Bush's platform highlights the challenge for both presidential candidates in trying to lure voters with attractive government initiatives at a time of mounting budget deficits. This year's federal budget deficit will reach a record $422 billion, and the government is expected to accumulate $2.3 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last week.
The president has had little to say about the deficit as he barnstorms across the country, which has prompted Democrats and some conservative groups to say Bush refuses to admit there will not be enough money in government coffers to pay for many of his plans.
Although a majority of voters say they are concerned about the deficit, most view Kerry as only marginally better able to deal with it than Bush, according to polls. And Bush often invokes the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in justifying the mounting governmental red ink. The president's aides, ever cognizant of his father's failure to articulate a convincing vision, said it was crucial for Bush to offer an ambitious new plan for the coming four years, despite the surge in government borrowing.
Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said the new proposals "are affordable, and the president remains committed to cutting the budget deficit in half over the next five years," although last week's CBO report indicates that goal may not be attainable.
The White House has declined to provide a full and detailed accounting of the cost of the new agenda. The administration last week provided a partial listing of the previously unannounced proposals, including "opportunity zones," that totaled $74 billion in spending over the next 10 years. But there was no mention of the cost of additional tax cuts and the creation of Social Security private accounts. Discussing his agenda during an "Ask the President" campaign forum in Portsmouth, Ohio, Bush said Friday that he has "explained how we're going to pay for it, and my opponent can't explain it because he doesn't want to tell you he's going to have to tax you."
Some fiscal conservatives who are dismayed by the return of budget deficits found little to cheer in the president's convention speech. Stephen Moore, president of the conservative Club for Growth, said that Bush's Social Security plan was money well spent by saving the system in the long run, but he added that Bush "has banked his presidency on the idea that people don't really care about the deficit, and he may be right."
"He's a big-government Republican, and there's no longer even the pretense that he's for smaller government," Moore said.
Kerry cited the deficit figures as fresh evidence that Bush's tax cuts were reckless and that he is taking the country in "the wrong direction."
The administration has been secretive about the cost of the war and the likely impact that the bulging defense budget and continuing cost of tax cuts will have on domestic spending next year. The White House put government agencies on notice this month that if Bush is reelected, his budget for 2006 may include $2.3 billion in spending cuts from virtually all domestic programs not mandated by law, including education, homeland security and others central to Bush's campaign.
But Bush has had little to say about belt-tightening and sacrifice on the campaign trail. Nor has he explained how he would reconcile all his new spending plans with the mounting deficit.