The budget is an annual statement of national priorities and in even-numbered years also serves as a campaign platform for the party in power. This President’s new spending priorities are grotesque–a cruel distortion of what matters to Americans–and riddled with deceptions. For the campaign, however, Bush’s slogan is surprisingly frank: “Cut the butter, give us more guns.” Terror is his theme, as usual. But instead of pretending, as he has in the past, that the war will be painless on the home front, Bush now asks people to choose between their fears and their hopes. That’s a far riskier gamble, and one he just might lose.

Bush’s budget is littered with phony claims and fanciful projections, but it does clearly frame a potentially decisive debate: Do Americans acquiesce to the “long war” envisioned by Pentagon planners? Or will Congress at last choke on the folly and open-ended costs of this new cold war? Bush is determined to convert America into a permanent war economy. If we reject his priorities we can perhaps turn back a national disaster before it’s too late.

While Bush slashes or freezes domestic programs like healthcare and education, his Pentagon budget increases by 7 percent, to $439 billion, 45 percent greater than when he took office five years ago. And the $439 billion is only part of the increased largesse for the military-security complex; another $33 billion goes to the ill-managed homeland security agencies. That still doesn’t count the war itself–another $70 billion or more.

Meanwhile, belt-tightening applies only at home–141 domestic programs either killed or cut. Education loses $2.1 billion, from student loans to vocational training. Healthcare takes a substantial hit, which means hospitals and nursing homes lose Medicare financing or communities lose disease prevention. Agriculture gets less for conservation. Federal home-heating aid ignores rising oil prices. The number of hungry Americans, rising at about 10 percent a year, is now 38 million, but Bush takes a whack at food assistance too.

These cuts are cynically proffered to allow the Administration to claim it tried to be fiscally prudent, since it knows Congress will not impose such severe pain–Bush proposes, for example, to eliminate the $225 death benefit widows and orphans receive under Social Security. At the same time, the budget counts new revenue from regressive tax “reforms” Bush hasn’t had the nerve to propose. It cuts Medicare while proposing new tax-free medical savings accounts that in effect benefit only the affluent–much like the rejected “reform” of Social Security. (The budget actually pretends that Social Security reform remains a live proposal.)

The question citizens–joined by courageous politicians– should examine is this: Why does the Pentagon need so much money, now that the Iraq War is supposedly winding down? The answer is that more such encounters are ahead, as part of the “irregular warfare” against terrorism involving super-sophisticated techniques that Field Marshal Rumsfeld says will be unfolding “for a generation to follow.” But why, then, is so much money proposed for weapons originally designed for the last cold war? The Quadrennial Defense Review explains they’re needed as a “hedge” against a future challenger–read China–to US dominance. China, meanwhile, is where US multinationals enthusiastically locate their new production and high-tech research laboratories. This would be merely absurd if it weren’t so dangerous.

The prime threat to our national security is a run-amok militarism that invites conflicts around the world and risks further national shame. Citizens have a chance this season to force a real debate on that threat, as well as to demand a budget that puts people’s hopes before their fears.