(March 17, 2006 -- 10:15 AM EDT)

I'm not sure what to say to erstwhile Bush supporters other than, 'Nice try.'

In yesterday's online WSJ Peggy Noonan asks readers whether they understood George W. Bush "to be a liberal in terms of spending" when he first came on the political scene in 2000.

I've been mulling over the last few days just how to characterize this: but it is certainly a muddled and bad-faith form of ideological projection mixed with evasion.

I think Atrios or Yglesias or perhaps both have made this point recently: but liberals or Democrats aren't committed to high rates of government spending as a core principle in the way that conservatives are with tax cuts. Yes, they believe in more social spending as a general rule. And there are certainly cases when that's led to fiscal excess. The distinction is an important one -- and one conservatives have a difficult time facing. But, in any case, what President Bush has done over the last five years -- with the unfailing support of pretty much every Republican elected official and pundit -- isn't 'big spending.' It's intentionally reckless fiscal policy which is going to create havoc for the country's finances for years to come.

If a Democrat tried to send soldiers to war and forgot to buy them ammunition or passed a health care plan without enough money for necessary drugs, that wouldn't make him closet conservative. It would mean he was incompetent. And voters would hold him to account.

On the part of Noonan and others, this is just an attempt to unload on the other guys the disaster they've allowed to happen on their watch.

Noonan actually tries to argue that President Bush has been a big spender on social programs and that this is somehow tied to his 'compassionate conservatism.' But that claptrap won't survive first contact with the budget numbers. President Bush has trashed the country's finances with three things -- big tax cuts, big defense hikes and whatever pork is necessary to win the next election.

Mr. Bush's mammoth deficit spending isn't some weird sort of ideological inversion. It's a character problem -- like spending money you don't have always is. And it's one Noonan and her ideological fellow-travellers are utterly on the line for.

-- Josh Marshall

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