Republicans Have Actually Been Pretty Consistent on the Debt

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 06:  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) talks to reporters following the weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol February 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. Senate Republicans and Democrats announced they have made progress on reaching an agreement to fund the federal government.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell talks to reporters following the weekly policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We aren’t exactly wanting for examples of Republican shamelessness in the Trump era. Pundits, liberal and conservative alike, routinely demand that the party do more to stand up to the president on this or that issue in defense of American political norms and in the hope that defiance might bring us more speedily back to something like normalcy. But normalcy was, itself, deeply rotten and nauseating. We’re reminded of this, or at least we ought to be, every time Republicans go about doing things Republicans have always done.

Democrats and liberals were beside themselves with indignation in December after Republicans blew a $1 trillion hole in the federal budget with their tax bill. “The Republican plan looks more like fraud than anything from the party of fiscal responsibility and limited government,” U.S. News’ John Stoehr wrote. “It appears to be a huge redistribution scheme to push wealth upward toward an elite few while forcing even those who would support a Republican agenda to pay for it with more and greater liabilities.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a press conference that the deficit hawk had “become, if not an endangered species, extinct.”

Wednesday’s bipartisan two-year budget agreement is being criticized on the same grounds. “Republican lawmakers in 2011 brought the U.S. government to the brink of default, refused to raise the debt ceiling, demanded huge spending cuts, and insisted on a constitutional amendment to balance the budget,” the Washington Post’s Damian Paletta and Erica Werner wrote. “On Wednesday, they formally broke free from those fiscal principles and announced a plan that would add $500 billion in new spending over two years and suspend the debt ceiling until 2019.” The article’s headline announced that “Republicans are completely reversing themselves on the deficit,” echoing a December New York Times headline: “Debt Concerns, Once a Core Republican Tenet, Take a Back Seat to Tax Cuts.”

Of course, debt concerns have never genuinely been a “core Republican tenet” and the party’s attitudes on the question have been remarkably consistent to anyone who’s bothered to pay attention over the past 40 or so years: Republicans oppose deficit spending under Democratic administrations or when it funds programs that Republicans do not believe in. The Reagan administration cut taxes significantly and ballooned military spending even as it warned that a rising deficit necessitated gutting liberal social programs. “The cuts - in ‘discretionary’ domestic spending, from 5.7 percent of the gross national product in 1981 to 3.7 percent this year - have landed heavily on the poor and near-poor,” the New York Times’ Martin Tolchin wrote in a 1988 assessment of the Reagan presidency. “Education and training, community development, welfare, nutrition, housing assistance and other antipoverty programs suffered most.” During the Bush administration, years already largely lost to memory, a dramatic tax cut was coupled again with massive increases in military spending along with some generosity in spending on Medicare and education and in other areas reflective of the “compassionate conservatism” then very briefly in vogue. This created a deficit that, at around noon on the 20th of January 2009, took on sudden and dramatic importance to the Republicans who had birthed it.

Rising national debt was a core part of the impending apocalypse voices in the conservative press screeched about constantly in the Obama years. In a fairly representative episode of his Fox News show in 2010, Glenn Beck warned that the national debt would lead to runaway inflation, $23 dollar bread in 2011, and, eventually, a “New World Order.” Out of this muck came the Tea Party and its babble about 1776 and thieving the future from our children along with a throng of new Republicans solemnly promising to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. They were joined by the establishment Republicans who had disordered it in the first place during the Bush administration—Republicans like Mitch McConnell, an incumbent since 1985, who called the national debt “the most important issue confronting the future of our country”  in 2013.

This was the case for opposing, obstructing, or demanding offsets for policies ranging from unemployment benefits to earthquake relief, as well as the shutdown brinkmanship and endless, impenetrable negotiations that both characterized and thoroughly derailed legislating during Obama’s presidency. The tax bill and this week’s spending agreement prove definitively, for any who were still in doubt, that it was all for nothing.

The American people are getting wise to the game being run here. According to Pew, only 48 percent of Americans believe the debt is a top political priority today, down from 63 percent in 2014. With any luck, that figure will drop further. The evidence that federal deficits in America, and the debt they grow, matter economically is thin. The reasons why get complex, but the long story short is that a wide body of macroeconomists have argued, first, that very low and very stable interest rates have allowed the government to borrow funds incredibly cheaply for some time now, and, second, that governments don’t actually have to pay back their debts in the manner that, as Republicans routinely suggest, a middle-class family on a shoestring budget would. In fact, many economists have said that at the onset of the Great Recession, increasing the deficit further with a larger stimulus closer to the size of the anticipated losses in America’s productive capacity than the one passed would have sped up the recovery. But Republicans, joined by centrist Democrats, placed a hard upper bound on the stimulus’ cost. We will never know how many Americans were hurt as a consequence.

Democrats who plan on taking the Republican reversal now as an opportunity to dredge up this history will be walking a tightrope. Castigating Republicans for their hypocrisy is worthwhile so long as the rhetoric deployed doesn’t suggest that the deficit really does matter. It doesn’t. The sensible line of attack is that Republicans lied about caring, not that they should have cared in the first place. Democrats should additionally acknowledge that they were accomplices in the con all along, as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote in December:

Democrats of this era were truly, madly, deeply in love with deficit reduction in ways that never really made sense — mixing substantive and political analysis in confusing ways, and often undermining their own objectives. Back in 2012, party leaders were prepared to trade Social Security and Medicare cuts to Republicans in exchange for the GOP agreeing to increase taxes on the rich even though the Bush tax cuts were already set to expire anyway.

House Democrats wrote and passed a piece of comprehensive climate change legislation that was painstakingly designed to reduce the budget deficit, as if borrowing a little money to avert a massive ecological catastrophe was somehow a bad idea, even though low interest rates and high unemployment argued that it was the perfect time for some more fiscal stimulus.

The silver lining of the new spending deal is that the agreement allows the Democrats to turn the page on all this if they choose to.The next Democratic administration should obviously be bolder not only in making spending demands but in insisting to the American people that the Republican Party’s fiscal credibility, and its moral credibility besides, are shot.