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Mitch Daniels, Darling of "Fiscal Conservatives," Was Architect of the US Debt Crisis

Mitch Daniels is billed as the "serious" GOP Presidential contender. Rarely mentioned is a key fact that should disqualify him from office: he was Bush's original budget director.

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In 2002, Daniels famously low-balled the war's cost at $50 billion to $60 billion and joined in the repudiation of Bush's economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, who had ventured an estimate as high as $200 billion. Daniels called Lindsey's price tag "very, very high."

But it turned out that even Lindsey's estimate, which led to his firing later that year, was very, very low. As of fiscal 2011, the Congressional Research Service  reported that the Iraq War had cost $806 billion, with estimates putting the eventual total cost of the conflict at over $1 trillion.

Though Daniels's defenders say it is unfair to blame him for all of Bush's policy decisions, Daniels was "a key figure in the administration, helping design policies and pressing publicly for their enactment," Salon.com's Brendan Nyhan reported in a Feb. 12, 2002,  article.

Besides citing Daniels's political role in pushing through Bush's deficit-oriented policies, Nyhan noted that Daniels's appointment to run the Office of Management and Budget marked an important evolution in the role of budget director from accounting wonk to political marketer.

"It is another sign of the importance P.R. tactics play in American politics," Nyhan wrote. "The OMB director -- once a budget expert -- is now an operative chosen for his political skills, particularly his ability to sell the administration's economic proposals in the media.

"In August [2001], Daniels admitted as much, telling the Wall Street Journal that '[t]o the extent I bring anything ... to this job, maybe it's an ability to think about how a product, whether it's Prozac or a president's proposal, is marketed.' Predictably, he has displayed a disturbing tendency to make dishonest claims for political advantage on federal budget issues."

For instance, Nyhan noted that Daniels first promoted the Bush tax cuts as a way to "share some of this large overcharge [the surplus] with the American people," but later he repackaged it as an economic stimulus. He also blamed the sudden $1.345 trillion drop in the projected surplus on various economic and technical factors, but the Congressional Budget Office cited the tax cut's $1.7 trillion price tag.

In his hard sell for Bush's policies, Daniels also was not above hitting his opponents below the political belt. In December 2001, he denounced Democratic "tax and spend extremists" as "people for whom taxes can't be high enough and we can never spend too much government money."

Cooking the Books

Daniels also was ready to stoop to accounting trickery to make Bush's budgets seem less irresponsible.

"In the federal budget process, [Daniels's] OMB has employed a number of accounting devices and misleading assumptions to conceal the true costs of tax cuts, restore budgets to balance artificially and otherwise tried to achieve political ends by tricky budgetary means," Nyhan wrote.

"In the Bush budget plan, for example, the administration projects a return to surpluses in 2004 or 2005, but this ignores the cost of extending a provision protecting millions of middle income taxpayers from a tax increase under the individual alternative minimum tax. ...

"It is a matter of serious public concern that the federal budget director has become just another spinner dragging down public debate. Though he is a political appointee heading an executive agency, Daniels is also a public official with a larger responsibility to promote honesty in federal budget debates.

"But after more than a year at his position, he still frequently makes deceptive claims often without challenge. Daniels may not recognize the difference from his previous job [as a pharmaceutical executive], but we must. It is unacceptable to market our nation's economic policies like Prozac. "

 
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