It was a political dynamic so absurd, it's still hard to believe Republicans pulled it off. During George W. Bush's presidency, GOP policymakers decided, as Dick Cheney once declared, that "deficits don't matter." 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.
Reflecting on the era, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who's been in Congress since the start of the Carter administration, told the Associated Press in 2009 that "it was standard practice not to pay for things" during Bush's presidency. A year later, the Utah Republican told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell "a lot of things weren't paid for" before Barack Obama became president.
And then GOP officials decided everything they'd said and done no longer mattered, and that any attempt to add so much as a penny to the debt was a crime against the American way of life. It was a transparent and ridiculous sham, which much of the political world accepted at face value. After all, voters were told, Republicans were the party of "deficit hawks."
Now GOP policymakers control the levers of power again, and right on cue, many of the folks who pretended to be concerned about the deficit in the Obama era have decided to drop the facade. Bloomberg Politics reported yesterday:
It was only about five years ago that powerful people in finance loved talking about the horrendous consequences for the U.S. if it didn't get its finances under control. They warned that the federal debt -- and the interest payments -- could eventually get high enough to drag down the economy, burden future generations, and even threaten national security. Chief executive officers of five of the biggest U.S. banks joined a campaign called Fix the Debt, signing on with hedge fund billionaires, asset managers, and private equity executives, as well as former lawmakers and others.
The conversation on Wall Street changed after November's election.
Imagine that. The "Fix the Debt" crowd adopted a "Forget the Debt" posture the moment Donald Trump started talking up tax breaks for the wealthy.
The same Bloomberg article put a spotlight on former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who became co-chairman of Fix the Debt in 2012, and who now leads a Wall Street lobbying association. Gregg, the piece noted, now believes "it wouldn't be so terrible if slashing taxes added $1 trillion or $2 trillion to the $20 trillion the U.S. already owes."
It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. As Jon Chait noted yesterday, Gregg was one of the nation's leading deficit scolds during Obama's presidency, warning of a looming apocalypse unless policymakers prioritized sweeping fiscal reforms.
"The practical implications of [Obama's budget] is bankruptcy for the United States," he warned in 2009. “People will not buy our debt, our dollar will become devalued. It is a very severe situation.” No less than the dissolution of American government lay ahead: “You’re running a banana republic is what it comes down to. You can’t afford to pay those debts.” And even as the deficit fell, Gregg’s terror of banana republicdom did not. “At some point — and if the CBO numbers are anywhere near right, it will be in the not too distant future — we as a nation will have a fiscal crisis of potentially apocalyptic proportions,” he predicted last year.
All of a sudden, Gregg's perspective has changed quite dramatically. All it took, evidently, was a good election cycle for his Republican allies.
At some point in the future, Democrats are going to have a good year at the ballot box, and GOP officials 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.