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08.05.11

The Meltdown’s True Villain

With a double-dip recession looming and attacks on Obama mounting, it’s amazing the GOP is still setting the U.S. agenda when its own George W. Bush ran up half the debt we’ve accumulated since Reagan.

As we thunder toward a double-dip recession on a possible worldwide scale, let’s step back and remember how all this happened. I’ve been pretty hard on Barack Obama lately (and will be again on Monday, as you’ll see). But Obama is not the villain in this story. Every time I step back and ponder this sordid history, I am amazed that the Republican Party has any credibility and even 100 members of Congress, let alone a sizable House majority and enough juice to be driving the nation’s agenda as it is.

The Boston Globe ran a chart last Sunday that I’d buy billboard space to reproduce in every decent-size city in America, if I were running the Democratic National Committee. The premise of it was very simple: It showed how many trillions each president since Ronald Reagan has added to the nation’s debt. The debt was about $1 trillion when Reagan took office, and then: Reagan, $1.9 trillion; George H.W. Bush, $1.5 trillion (in just four years); Bill Clinton, $1.4 trillion; Obama, $2.4 trillion.

Oh, wait. I skipped someone. George W. Bush ran up $6.4 trillion. That’s nearly half—44.7 percent—of the $14.3 trillion total. We all know what did it—two massive tax cuts geared toward the rich (along with other similar measures, like slashing the capital gains and inheritance taxes), the off-the-books wars, the unfunded Medicare expansion, and so on. But the number is staggering and worth dwelling on. In a history covering 30 years, nearly half the debt was run up in eight. Even the allegedly socialist Obama at his most allegedly wanton doesn’t compare to Dubya; and Obama’s debt numbers, if he’s reelected, will surely not double or even come close as we gambol down Austerity Lane.

In percentage terms, the case is even more open and shut. This table tells the sad tale. The percentages in question here are debt as a chunk of the GDP. It was more than 100 percent after World War II ended, for defensible and obvious reasons having to do with financing the war effort (the government buying all those tanks and planes from GM, and everything else). But after it went back down, it had tended to hover in the 40 to 50 percent range during good times. Well, Reagan raised it 20 points, to 53 percent from 33 percent. Bush Sr. a gaudy 13 points more. Clinton lowered it by 10 points, back down to 56 percent. Bush Jr.? Up 28 points, to 82 percent of GDP. Obama has raised it nine points. Once again: In a 30-year increase from 32 percent to 93 percent of 61 points, nearly half, 28 points or 46 percent, happened under Bush.

When I haven’t had to leave the room to avoid smashing the television, I can only laugh when I hear Tea Party conservatives avow today, with all the credibility of Larry Craig explaining his wide-stance technique, that they have no love for Bush. Nonsense. What did they have for him in real time? Were there protest marches, mass donnings of tricorn hats, nullification threats from states regarding federal legislation? Of course not. In real time, there was a little polite caviling, but in the end they voted for all this debt. After all, Bush was defending freedom.

I can only laugh when I hear Tea Party conservatives avow today, with all the credibility of Larry Craig explaining his wide stance, that they have no love for Bush.

It is truly an incredible record when you stack it up. First, the party fought tooth and nail against every single move Clinton made that ended up putting us in surplus. Then it got power—and let’s not get into how that happened—and ran up completely unprecedented debts and deficits. Then it put the foxes in command of the henhouses at the SEC and OTC and brought the world to the very brink of total economic collapse. (The economic “growth” rate in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to recently revised Commerce Department figures, was negative 8.9 percent; even during the Depression rates were typically higher.)  Then a guy from the other party got back in, tried to do what the vast majority of economists would say should be done in such a situation (the government should spend money while the private sector couldn’t), and they fought him tooth and nail. And now they’ve forced him into a deal (which he should not have agreed to) that will help ensure that the economy remains stuck in neutral until, oh, November 2012, to pick a date out of the air. Next, that guy will identify tax cuts to spur job growth, and they will invent reasons to oppose these measures, just as they once invented reasons why “deficits don’t matter."

A football coach with a similar record would be selling cars. A movie director with one would be lucky to be making instructional videos. A bank president would likely be in jail. But here we are. It just goes to show what you can accomplish when the richest 1 percent of the country pays you (and pays you, and pays you) to lie, and to believe fairy tales. But it’s hard luck for the rest of us.