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07.11.11

The GOP’s False Fiscal Narrative

The often-used storyline that Republicans are desperate to balance America’s books is false, and so is the one about the GOP and the Democrats both being prisoners of their ideological extremes, says Peter Beinart.

Reading about the debt-reduction talks is painful. It’s painful because in analyzing them, the media frequently fall back on storylines that just aren’t true.

Storyline No. 1: Republicans are desperate to balance America’s books. This is, to be sure, what Republicans say. But is there any reason to take them at face value? During the Bush years, after all, the GOP was anything but desperate to put America’s fiscal house in order. The Bush administration launched wars that increased the deficit, pushed tax cuts that increased the deficit, even pushed entitlement expansions—such as the prescription-drug benefit—that increased the deficit.

At times, top White House officials dismissed the idea that debt was a problem at all. When Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, warned that the Bush tax cuts would expand the deficit, Dick Cheney famously replied, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter.” If Barack Obama or Joe Biden said that today, Tea Partiers would begin shooting their muskets at the White House. But when Cheney did, it produced barely any right-wing outcry at all.

Ask today’s Republicans about all this and they’ll tell you they spent the Bush years secretly seething at W’s profligate ways. But they did an excellent job of hiding it. Bush, after all, garnered the largest conservative turnout in history in 2004, after four years in which he did almost everything in his power to push America into the red.

But why focus on the past? Every day brings fresh evidence that debt reduction is way down on the GOP’s priority list. If Republicans simply wanted to reduce the debt by as much as possible, they’d agree to large cuts in defense, and agree to raise taxes, both of which would not only reduce the debt in their own right but give Democrats cover to back larger cuts in entitlements. But when House Speaker John Boehner broached something along these lines, Republicans rose up in fury, insisting that he oppose any tax increases, even if the result is a substantially smaller deficit-reduction deal.   

So the oft-repeated narrative is wrong: Republicans are not desperate to reduce America’s debt. They are desperate to reduce the debt so long as it doesn’t conflict with their two higher priorities: opposing tax cuts and maintaining defense spending. Those are two rather large caveats.

The second oft-repeated narrative is that the two parties can’t reach a deficit-reduction deal because they are both prisoners of their ideological extremes. If only both sides would move to the center, Washington could get its fiscal house in order. But the parallelism is absurd. If Barack Obama really were the left’s version of John Boehner, he’d be insisting that the deficit be reduced entirely by tax increases—or at least tax increases plus defense cuts. Instead, he’s supporting dramatic cuts in nondefense spending while merely demanding that tax increases be part of the deal. Most Republican leaders, by contrast, oppose any tax increases at all.

On economic policy, the Democratic Party is a party of the center, not the left. If it were a party of the left, labor unionists would have a larger voice in its economic policy than investment bankers, which has not been the case for decades now. When it comes to economics, Barack Obama, like Bill Clinton, is to the right of midcentury Democrats like Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson, and Walter Mondale, precisely because labor has lost influence and America’s campaign-finance system has pushed Democrats into Wall Street’s arms. Today’s Republicans, by contrast, are substantially to the right of Ronald Reagan, who cut taxes, but also repeatedly raised them. And were Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon alive today, their economic policies would get them instantly labeled RINOs, if not socialists.

Bush did almost everything in his power to push America into the red.

Since the Clinton years, in other words, what the media label “sensible centrism” has generally meant economic policies to the right of Reagan’s. That’s certainly the case today, with Obama struggling to include any tax increases at all in a deficit-reduction deal that slashes domestic spending. For those of us who believed that Obama’s victory would shift the American economic debate leftward, this is sobering stuff. It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it: To listen to the debates among today’s Republicans, you’d literally think the reason for the financial crisis was that the United States government taxed and regulated too much.

As Boehner’s actions last weekend showed, American politics still pits one party that adheres to the post–New Deal welfare-state consensus against another party of roughly equal strength that does not. In those circumstances, liberals will usually lose. It would be nice if the media noticed.