On the deficit, VP Mike Pence gives away the game

The same Republicans who said deficits hinder economic growth now believe deficits can help fuel economic growth. Imagine that.
Twenty Dollar Bills Are Printed At The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 22: Treasury Secretary's Timothy Geithner's signature can be seen on a new twenty dollar bill, at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing on July 22, 2011 in Washington, DC. The printing facility of Bureau of Engraving and Printing on 14th Street in Washington was until 1991 the only facility printing Federal Reserve notes until a western facility was opened in Fort Worth, Texas.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appeared on Capitol Hill, and in response to questions about the nation's escalating budget shortfall, he assured lawmakers, "I stand by our comments that the tax cuts will pay for themselves. This will be simple math."

His timing could've been better. Around the same time as his testimony, Mnuchin's Treasury Department announced that the U.S. budget deficit from the first quarter of the fiscal year -- the three-month period covering October 2019 through January 2020 -- was $389 billion.

The nation had a $1 trillion deficit last year and it appears we're well on track for another this year. But it was against this backdrop that Vice President Mike Pence told CNBC's Wilfred Frost that deficit concerns simply aren't as important as economic growth.

"The president came into office and he said, 'First and foremost, we have to restore growth,'" Pence said. "Deficits and debt are right in line, but it is first about getting this economy moving again and we really do believe the trajectory of this economy," [the vice president added].

The quote didn't cause much of a stir, which is a shame because it was an important moment given the context of the larger fiscal debate.

During Barack Obama's presidency, especially as the nation struggled to address the Great Recession, the entirety of the Republican Party linked arms and made their economic vision plain: the United States, they said, must focus on balancing the budget and shrinking the trillion-dollar deficit.

Even after the economy had fallen off a cliff, even as unemployment was climbing toward 10%, GOP officials -- including a House Republican Conference chairman by the name of Mike Pence -- said the key to prosperity was prioritizing deficit reduction over investment.

Accused of trying to sabotage the economy and deliberately hurt Americans because there was a Democrat in the White House, Republicans feigned outrage. No, no, GOP officials said, this was a sincere belief that larger deficits would stand in the way of economic growth.

A decade later -- by sheer coincidence, I'm sure -- Pence and his party have miraculously discovered that everything they said at the time was backwards. The same Republicans who said deficits hinder economic growth now believe deficits can help fuel economic growth.

Imagine that.

Donald Trump himself, after promising voters he'd eliminate the budget deficit, echoed the sentiment last month. Responding to those who criticized his willingness to add trillions to the debt, the president told supporters at Mar-a-Lago, "Who the hell cares about the budget? We're going to have a country."

The New York Times' Paul Krugman explained in a column last week, "The implications for party strategy are stark: Maximum cynicism is the best policy. Obstruct, disrupt, and hurt the economy as much as you can, deploying whatever hypocritical excuses you think the media will buy, when the other party holds the presidency. Then abandon all concerns for the future and buy votes once you're back in control."

It's awfully convenient of Mike Pence to prove Krugman right.