With Congressional Republicans insisting that we have to attack the sickness of spending that, in Speaker John Boehner's words, is afflicting Washington, it's worth recalling some recent history.
In 1981, Ronald Reagan's budget director David Stockman admitted to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, that running up "strategic deficits" was a useful political tool because it "gives you an argument for cutting back programs that really weren't desired and giving you an argument against establishing new programs you don't really want." Stockman noted further that strategic deficits can enable opponents of public investments to sound compassionate, providing them with opportunities to use phrases like "We can't steal from our children to pay for our short-term desires" to oppose government spending.
Reagan had run on a platform of reining in government spending and waste and on promises to put our house in fiscal order. Reagan insisted that deep cuts in personal income and capital gains taxes would result in increased tax revenue for the government because of the wealth-generating benefits of the cuts—so-called supply-side economics. During the 1980 campaign, his future vice president, George H. W. Bush, mocked supply-side theory as "voodoo economics." Of course, during his eight years in office, Reagan presided over an explosion in government deficits and a more than doubling of the national debt. But he also achieved two goals critical to modern conservatives: He dramatically shifted wealth from ordinary Americans to the very wealthy, and he made "deficit reduction" a useful code for hamstringing government efforts to help the less well-off.
When George W. Bush became president in 2001, he inherited large projected surpluses. Bush set about attacking those surpluses, passing large tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and—combined with the Bush wars and Medicare drug prescription plan—were largely responsible for wiping out those projected surpluses and replacing them with large projected deficits." Like Reagan, Bush accomplished two cherished goals in the process—further transferring wealth to the wealthiest Americans while putting Congress in a "straitjacket" with respect to critical investments in the nation's infrastructure and social programs. As conservative columnist and Bush cheerleader Fred Barnes put it at the time, "The most important fan of strategic deficits in Bushland: Bush." Like Reagan, Bush certainly succeeded, if success is defined as running up large deficits that constrain future efforts to address adequately the nation's pressing social and infrastructural needs.
At the start of 2011, the GOP remains deeply dishonest about its motives for screaming about red ink. Every action they have taken makes clear that their goal isn't deficit reduction or fiscal responsibility. Rather, their intention, largely unchanged for 30 years, is—broadly speaking—to shill for the wealthiest Americans while insisting that everyone else keep a stiff upper lip.
Consider the budget "road map" offered last year by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan. Ryan has emerged as the leading congressional spokesman in his party on fiscal issues. And his "road map" did offer by far the most detailed and widely discussed GOP blueprint plan for deficit reduction. That plan offered, in the words of one commentator, a "breathtaking vision of how the government would operate in the 21st century if conservatives had their way," including increases in taxes for everyone except the rich, largely replacing Medicare with a voucher system and deep cuts to Social Security. And at the end of the day, the Ryan plan would ...wait for it ... not reduce the nation's deficits.
Ryan says otherwise, of course. But in a brazen act of deception that has become entirely typical of today's GOP, Ryan insisted that the Congressional Budget Office supported his contention that the road map cuts deficits, when the CBO said no such thing. In fact, Ryan only asked the CBO to "score" his spending cuts while leaving out the deficit-increasing effects of his tax cuts. Having asked the CBO to score, in effect, a fake proposal with fake parameters, he declared "mission accomplished." Nice work if you can get it.
Ryan refuses to consider that tax cuts would undermine his plan to cut the deficit—par for the course for the Republican Party, circa 2011. This is the party, after all, whose leaders now commonly assert that tax cuts don't actually cost anything and which has adopted new spending rules in the House that reflect that claim. If it sounds like voodoo economics, it is, but with a vengeance. Top marginal tax rates are already half of what they were 30 years ago. Income inequality is at levels not seen since the 1920s. And the top 1 percent of earners captured half of all economic growth in the United States between 1993 and 2007. Given these facts, it's even more brazen and dishonest now than it was 30 years ago to insist that the cure for what ails America is to reduce taxes on the rich while telling everyone else to wait for the goodies to "trickle down."
Ryan, unsurprisingly, voted for those Bush tax cuts, the ones that contributed decisively to converting those large projected surpluses into deficits, the deficits he now claims to be on a crusade to eliminate. And Ryan, like every one of his GOP colleagues in the House, also just voted to repeal the 2010 health care reform bill.
According to the CBO, without these imaginary parameters, repeal would increase the deficit over the next 10 years by some $200 billion, and more beyond that. According to Ryan and his colleagues, this is untrue because they've insisted on counting against the reform act the so-called doc fix, an annual adjustment in Medicare payments to doctors that Congress has enacted every year since 1997 and that it will continue to pass irrespective of health care reform. In other words, the doc fix has nothing to do with the health care reform, but Republicans like the oh-so-serious deficit hawk Paul Ryan continue to insist that it does.
There is a serious debate to be had in this country about pressing challenges: mushrooming health care costs, the enormous expense of maintaining Pentagon expenditures and balancing the needs of struggling Americans against legitimate long-term concerns about our fiscal health. But the Republican Party today, as an institution, is simply not a serious or credible participant in that debate. Their leaders have engaged in serial dishonesty about what ails America and what can be done to put the country on a more sound and just economic course, shilling for the wealthy interests they faithfully represent while claiming to be concerned that deficits are the moral equivalent of stealing from our grandchildren.
Thirty years ago, Stockman told an interviewer that the theory behind supply-side economics was suspect at best, but that it was a "trojan horse," the only way to get through Congress the tax cuts on the top earners that, Stockman confided, was the real goal of Reagan's supply-side mantra. Today's GOP leaders routinely cite Ronald Reagan as their hero. And one has to be impressed by how well they've learned from the master of modern political deception to misrepresent so fully what they really stand for.
Jonathan Weiler teaches global studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written two books, Human Rights in Russia and Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics. His column will appear in the Indy twice a month.