What do the debate over the Afghan war and the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts have in common? They could both be taking place in 2005. The financial crisis has changed the world. But in Washington, the arguments have barely changed.
Five years ago, Washington Democrats said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting because there really were terrorists there. Five years later, the Democrat in chief is still saying that, even though we now know that 1) most of the al Qaeda types are in Pakistan, 2) Hamid Karzai has largely given up on the war we’re fighting in his name, and 3) our superpower status is seriously threatened by debt. Five years ago, Republicans said the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting because the “Islamofascists” were today’s version of the Nazis and communists. Five years later, al Qaeda still hasn’t pulled off another attack anywhere in the world (let alone in the U.S.) even close to 9/11, and yet to listen to the GOP, ceding Marja to the Taliban remains the equivalent of letting Hitler have Paris. With the exception of Vice President Joe Biden, whose patience with Karzai seems to have run out, it’s hard to find a prominent Washington politician willing to allow new information to displace old dogma.
Today, everyone pretends that they’re worried about the deficit—and then pursues basically the same agenda they would pursue if they weren’t worried.
• Lloyd Grove: The Texas Republican Who Hates BushOn the tax cuts, it’s much the same. During the Bush years, Republicans mostly insisted, in Dick Cheney’s famous words, that “deficits don’t matter.” Now they say deficits are virtually all that matters. Their rhetoric has shifted radically, but their policy prescriptions haven’t changed one bit. You might think that people terrified of deficits would be concerned about permanently extending tax cuts that will add at least $2 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. Nope. The Republicans were for cutting taxes when they didn’t care about deficits and they are for cutting taxes when they do care about deficits, which is another way of saying that they don’t really care about deficits. For their part, most Democrats are as adamantly opposed to upper-bracket tax cuts as they were in the Bush years, even though if you really believe in Keynesian economics, as the Democrats supposedly do, raising taxes during a recession makes a lot less sense than raising them when times are good.
In 2010, as in 2005, American politics remains basically a contest between a pro-war/anti-government party and an anti-war/pro-government party. But it wasn’t always this way. To understand how Beltway discourse might be different if the two parties really made policy based on their view of the deficit, think about what Republicans and Democrats believed in the two decades between World War II and Vietnam. From Harry Truman through Lyndon Johnson, Democrats said that if Washington spent lavishly and cut taxes, America would grow its way out of debt. And because they weren’t worried about debt, the Democrats of the early Cold War weren’t all that worried about war: From Korea to Vietnam, they said the U.S. could essentially run its foreign policy on a blank check. Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, were so afraid of deficits that they opposed both large new government programs and large tax cuts—and costly ground wars as well. In Washington today, there are barely any Truman/Kennedy Democrats or Eisenhower Republicans left. Joe Lieberman is probably closest to the former, Ron Paul to the latter, and both men are viewed inside their parties as traitorous freaks.
There were plenty of problems with American politics in the early Cold War years, but at least each party had a coherent view of deficits, a view that guided the policies it espoused. Today, everyone pretends that they’re worried about the deficit—and then pursues basically the same agenda they would pursue if they weren’t worried. “There’s another elephant in the room—the budget deficit,” declared Max Baucus recently. “And that elephant is growing.” It may not be the world’s most elegant metaphor, but Baucus is on to something. An elephant in the room, after all, is something that doesn’t interrupt your normal routine, no matter how large it gets. Until it tramples you, that is.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.