The debate over the budget deficit and “fiscal responsibility” runs like clockwork: when there’s a Democratic president, Republicans pretend to care about balancing the budget; and when there’s a Republican president, the GOP drops the pretense.
Indeed, it’s one of the few constants in American politics. When George W. Bush was president, Republicans put two wars, two tax cuts, Medicare expansion, and a Wall Street bailout on the national credit card – and made no effort to pay for any of it. Dick Cheney declared that “deficits don’t matter” and Orrin Hatch said it was “standard practice not to pay for things” in the Bush era.
Then Barack Obama was elected and many of those same Republicans decided the fate of Western civilization was dependent on balancing the budget.
There have been some good pieces published lately highlighting the cynicism of the GOP’s shift in posture, and the Republicans’ indifference to the deficit as their tax plan comes together, but today’s New York Times article included a quote of particular interest.
Fast forward to President Trump’s Washington, where the budget deficit for this fiscal year is expected to near $700 billion and the federal debt has topped $20 trillion.
A new tax cut is emerging to rival those of the Bush years, and the deficit hawks have hardly peeped.
“It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led,” said Representative Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina and the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 conservative House members. “It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”
The congressman’s spokesperson later clarified that he wasn’t personally endorsing this cynical approach, but rather, was describing how some of his colleagues perceive the issue.
And while that context matters, it’s nevertheless true that Walker is shining a light on an important political dynamic.
This is a straightforward test for “deficit hawks”: do they care about this issue no matter who’s in the White House? Are they as quick to denounce borrowing when it’s tax cuts for the wealthy on the line as they are when Democrats are pushing domestic investments?
For much of the congressional GOP, the answer to both questions is no. For the party en masse, there’s no consistency, no guiding principles, and no real effort to explain why their interest shifts with the winds.
As we discussed several weeks ago, at some point in the future, Democrats are going to have a good year at the ballot box, and Republicans and their allies are going to once again say with faux sincerity that America must get its fiscal house in order or risk a calamity. Only those with frighteningly short memories will believe them.