Pete Buttigieg Isn’t Really a Deficit Hawk. He Just Talks Like One.

NASHUA, NEW HAMPSHIRE - FEBRUARY 11:  Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg greets supporters outside a polling station at Broad Street Elementary School February 11, 2020 in Nashua, New Hampshire. New Hampshire holds its first in the nation primary today. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Mayor Pete, deficit Hawk. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Pete Buttigieg is not much of a deficit hawk. But he does play one on the stump.

For many months now, the former mayor of South Bend has been telling audiences that he is deeply worried about the federal debt, and believes Democrats should talk more about addressing it, even if the topic isn’t “fashionable” these days among progressives. “I think the time has come for my party to get a lot more comfortable owning this issue,” Buttigieg told a crowd in New Hampshire just this weekend. “Because we see what’s happening under this president, a trillion-dollar deficit. And his allies in Congress do not care. So we’ve gotta do something about it.” And why is he so worried about deficits? “It’s largely generational,” he explained in September. “Because lord willing, I am going to be here when a lot of these fiscal time bombs that have been set by leaders in both parties—but especially under this president—go off.”

These sorts of soundbites make Buttigieg come off as a run-of-the-mill budget scold, the sort of politician who would be open to Social Security or Medicare cuts as part of a plan to reduce the nation’s borrowing. Consequently, the rhetoric has alarmed a number of commentators on the left, who would like Democrats to stop worrying so much about deficits. The American Prospect has even dubbed him “Austerity Pete.” But if you look carefully at his comments, and his platform, it’s pretty clear the label doesn’t fit.

Traditionally, centrist fiscal hawks tend to argue that Washington needs to raise taxes and rein in entitlement spending just to make our current suite of federal programs sustainable. Buttigieg, in contrast, mostly just talks about raising taxes, primarily to pay for new spending. “In most developed countries, about a third of GDP goes in some way through the public sector,” he told that audience back in September. “In our country, it’s a quarter, and in that difference between a third and a quarter are so many of the ways in which our systems are falling behind other developed countries.” He’s also told crowds that, sometimes, deficits are perfectly fine. “You know, debt can play a role,” he told a Fox News town hall back May. “Deficits can play a role, especially when you’re doing deficit spending that pays for itself in the long run. Now, tax cuts for the wealthy don’t do that. But investments in education, in infrastructure, in health sometimes can.”

Buttigieg’s platform doesn’t involve much if any serious budget-cutting, either. Quite the opposite. He says he wants to increase Social Security benefits. He’s envisioned an ambitious government health-care expansion. And altogether, he’s outlined $7.2 billion in new spending, according to the centrist Progressive Policy Institute. He just also happens to have sketched out roughly $7.4 trillion in pay-fors, which is why he sometimes brags that his agenda would start to reduce the deficit.

To make sure I wasn’t missing something, I asked Buttigieg’s campaign a few questions to clarify its stance on fiscal policy:

1) Does he oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare?
2) If faced with a Republican Congress, would he ever pursue a “grand bargain” that traded major spending cuts for tax increases in order to reduce the deficit, like the one President Obama pursued with House Republicans?
3) Would he have supported the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan, which also paired entitlement cuts with tax hikes?

In response, Buttigieg spokesman Sean Savett emailed me the following:

Pete would not support Bowles-Simpson or any type of agreement that would lead to any cuts to Social Security or a “Grand Bargain” that would lead to irresponsible cuts to critical programs. Instead, Pete’s proposed a bold, progressive agenda, including expanding Social Security Benefits, and he’s outlined sources of revenue that would fully pay for his agenda that include higher taxes on corporations and the top 2%.

He opposes cutting Medicare benefits. Instead, he supports expanding it as you mentioned and would reduce out-of-pocket spending on Medicare Part D. [Reporter’s note: My email mentioned his health care plan, which he refers to as “Medicare for all who want it.”]

So: No to Social Security or Medicare cuts. No to grand bargains. But yes to big new spending programs. I suppose it’s possible that Buttigieg is some sort of crypto-austerity agent, as some have suggested. But the simpler, more convincing explanation is that he just thinks talking about the deficit is good politics because it appeals to moderates and lets him take easy shots at both Sen. Bernie Sanders (who still hasn’t explained how he plans to pay for his agenda) and President Donald Trump (who blew up the budget with tax cuts). If you want to get a bit deeper about it, Buttigieg clearly understands that Democrats have been the actual standard bearers of fiscal responsibility for the past three decades, and thinks that they should just own it a little more vocally. As he put it in December: “I believe every Presidency of my lifetime has been an example of deficits growing under Republican government and shrinking under Democratic government, but … my party’s got to get more comfortable talking about this issue”

But is Buttigieg right? Should Democrats emphasize their fiscal rectitude more than they already do?

There’s obviously some logic to the idea. Republicans have been extraordinary hypocrites on the debt ever since the Reagan years, and it’d be nice if Democrats could take them to task for it. Also, the procedural rules of the Senate basically require liberals to care about deficits, at least for now. The reason why is that Democrats will likely have to enact any major legislation via the budget reconciliation process, which prevents filibusters on tax and spending bills. Laws passed through reconciliation aren’t allowed to increase the deficit outside the budget window, which is traditionally 10 years. Republicans have gotten around this issue by setting some of their tax cuts to expire within a decade, with the hope that Congress will simply renew them when it comes time (the gambit worked for a lot of the Bush tax cuts). But Democrats can’t really afford to take a similar risk with, say, their next big health-care reform—if Obamacare were set to sunset now, I’m pretty sure Republicans would just let it—which means they’ll probably need to pay for it. There are some big, temporary spending priorities, like infrastructure and green energy funding, that can and probably should be financed through deficit spending under reconciliation. But in the end, Democrats have historically been the party of fiscal responsibility, and will probably have to remain the party of fiscal responsibility for the foreseeable future. Trying to turn that into a political advantage isn’t entirely irrational.

But in the grand scheme of things, Buttigieg’s deficit talk probably does much more harm than good for the progressive cause. The irrational fear of government borrowing has been one of the single most damaging economic superstitions of the past decade. All around the world, deficit phobia in the wake of the global recession led countries to adopt austerity policies that slowed growth and prolonged high levels of unemployment. It happened in Europe. It happened in the United States. Thankfully, the world has begun to learn from those mistakes. Mainstream economists are urging countries to worry a bit less about debt, and more about growth. In the United States, the Republican party’s complete lack of concern about deficits under Trump has made it clear that conservatives don’t actually care all that much about the deficit, except when it’s a useful political cudgel. But by going on about fiscal time bombs and such, Buttigieg is breathing life back into the discredited ideology of austerity. Or, as New York’s Eric Levitz wrote this week, “He appears hell-bent on undermining our herd immunity to deficit hysteria.” It might pay some short-term political dividends. But as long as people are worried about debt, conservatives it seems all but certain that conservatives will one day try to weaponize those anxieties against progressive causes by demanding severe budget cuts.

In other words, the problem with talking like a deficit hawk is that some people might take you seriously.