When do deficits matter?

Oh, that’s really simple.  When a Democrat is president.  Seriously.  I think to even charge what the Republicans are up to as “hypocrisy” is an insult to hypocrisy.  Rather, it is an Orwellian subversion of responsible governance for short-term partisan power.  Paul Waldman:

But the Republicans now taking power in Washington are bringing hypocrisy to spectacular new heights.

Here’s a striking report today from Kelsey Snell and David Weigel:

Some of the most conservative members of Congress say they are ready to vote for a budget that would — at least on paper — balloon the deficit to more than $1 trillion by the end of the decade, all for the sake of eventually repealing the Affordable Care Act.

In a dramatic reversal, many members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus said Thursday they are prepared later this month to support a budget measure that would explode the deficit and increase the public debt to more than $29.1 trillion by 2026, figures contained in the budget resolution itself.

But wait — isn’t it unconscionable to saddle our grandchildren with debt? Don’t these members of the Freedom Caucus believe with every fiber of their beings that deficits are evil and government must be made to live according to its means?

Just as we don’t have to wonder about the economic impact of the Republican program of upper-income tax cuts and deregulation — since it was tested between the years 2001 and 2008 and proved to be an extraordinary failure — we don’t have to ask whether Republicans will stop caring about the deficit now that they’re in charge…

When George W. Bush was president, Republicans passed huge spending bills without trying to pay for them at all, like the Medicare prescription drug benefit — the cost was just added to the deficit, at the same time as they were slashing revenue with tax giveaways to the rich. Likewise, two wars that together cost trillions of dollars were just put on the tab. The result was that the deficit nearly quadrupled between Bush’s first year in office and his last, with nary a peep of dissent from Republicans. (It should be noted that after Bush left office with some of the worst approval ratings in history, many Republicans began saying he wasn’t a “true” conservative because he didn’t cut spending, though they somehow forgot to raise any such objections when he was in office.)

But as soon as Barack Obama came into the White House, Republicans began to cry that deficits were a plague, a poison, a crisis that demanded immediate action. Though nearly all the Republicans had happily supported a stimulus package put forward by the Bush administration in January 2008 to give a boost to the economy, in the face of the worst economic crisis in eighty years they stood firm against the Obama administration’s stimulus plan. And in the ensuing years, Democrats did what Republicans never do: paid for their spending, as they did with the Affordable Care Act, every penny of which was paid for with new taxes and spending cuts. In fact, the ACA wasn’t just paid for, it significantly reduced the deficit by lowering overall health costs… [bold is mine; italics is Waldman]

The lesson of all this is that when you’re in the opposition you can say all kinds of things you don’t actually believe, but it’s when you have power that you reveal your true self. Republicans haven’t even taken power yet, and they’re already showing who they really are.

And Drum:

As always, Republicans only care about deficits when a Democrat is president. This time around they didn’t waste even two days before they made that crystal clear. I wonder how many times they can pull this bait-and-switch before the public and the press stops taking them seriously on their alleged horror of the spiraling national debt? [emphasis mine]

Republicans want to cut spending on the poor and cut taxes on the rich. That’s it. Deficits haven’t bothered them since the Reagan era. But I have to admit that this latest U-turn is pretty brazen even for them. It was only a few short months ago that they were swearing on a stack of Bibles that debt was eating our nation alive and they would never, ever vote for a budget that increased the deficit.

But it turns out there was an asterisk. If the deficit is produced by cutting Obamacare taxes on the rich and repealing Obamacare benefits for the poor, then it’s OK.

Alas, I think for now the Republicans can still get away with this for a long time.  It seems they have fooled most of the people, most of the time.  The real-world empirical record on this is absolutely crystal clear– Democrats are massively more responsible about the deficit than are Republicans.  Obamacare is a terrific demonstration about that.  But Republicans constant rhetoric about deficits when Democrats are in power has clearly pulled the wool over the eyes of many, if not most, Americans.

I’ll be discussing this in my Public Policy class in a few weeks.  Again, the empirical record on this over the last 30+ years could not be more clear.  But I guarantee you many of my students will just write these inconvenient facts off as liberal propaganda from their liberal professor.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to When do deficits matter?

  1. Jon K says:

    Please do not let the fact that many of your conservative students will not accept what you are teaching prevent you from teaching it. I represent a clear example of someone who believed the conservative/libertarian ideology wholeheartedly. The main reason I supported conservative ideology was because I was concerned with deficit spending and I believed that Democrats would lead our country to disaster with irresponsible spendthrift policies.

    Once I was exposed to the empirical facts I was forced to accept that neither party actually cares about deficits and the long term consequences of them. Once I came to terms with that, I had to then consider what the deficit spending was being used to finance. I came to see that I would much rather see the government using that money to help those in need have access healthcare and not be directed to benefiting those who are already economical secure.

    That being said, I think that we should be paying for our government instead of incurring deficits. I would have a lot more respect for a conservative party that prioritized responsibility with deficits over tax cuts for wealthy people. I don’t understand how Republicans still push supply side economics when we have some of the lowest tax rates we have ever had already. If our top tax rates were actually punishing productivity then we would have top rates approaching 90%. We are so far away from that it makes the supply side argument nonsensical and irresponsible to keep that the primary priority.

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