There it sits, lonely and forlorn on my shelf. A leather-bound copy of the 1999 Budget of the United States of America. A gift from President Clinton to the folks on his team, it was the first balanced budget in decades.
But it wasn’t supposed to be the last. Indeed, experts projected surpluses as far as the eye could see: $5.7 trillion in surpluses, to be exact. The surpluses were so strong that deep into the future—in 2009—the entire national debt was going to be zero. For the first time since Andy Jackson was president, the United States of America would not owe a dime.
It didn’t quite work out that way, did it? As Washington seems paralyzed, our economy stagnates, and America’s full faith and credit is on the brink, it is useful to recall how we got here. This was not an act of nature. There was no unforeseen earthquake, no tsunami, no hurricane that wiped out our surplus. It was instead a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a Republican president who squandered the surplus. In full possession of the federal government for the first time since Eisenhower, the GOP—with, to be fair, some help from some very foolish Democrats—systematically dismantled the economic and fiscal policies that produced the strongest economy and largest budget surplus in our history.
Specifically, they did four things: cut taxes (with a heavy tilt toward the rich), waged two wars on the national credit card (one of which was against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and posed no serious threat to America), passed a prescription drug benefit with no pay-for (the first entitlement in American history without a revenue source), and deregulated Wall Street (which helped turn the American economy into a casino and touched off the Great Recession).
I recap all that not to further depress you, Dear Reader. But it is striking how absent that history has been from the coverage of our current crisis. I can understand why the GOP doesn’t want to remind folks of how they screwed the pooch. Indeed, they have a competing myth—that Washington went on a spending binge; radical young President Barack Obama went crazy with the national credit card. That, of course, is nonsense. But too few Democrats—and almost no media commentators—have countered the mendacious right-wing storyline.
Just as bad as ignoring how we got here, we risk missing the story of precisely where the GOP wants to take us. In the coverage of the game (Will Boehner find the votes? Will the Tea Party really drive us off a cliff? Will Eric Cantor lead a revolt?) we sometimes neglect the substance of the proposals. Just what kind of country do the Republicans seek to build? Instead of seeing it as a bargaining chip, perhaps we should treat the GOP proposal as a serious governing document.
Bob Greenstein, the widely respected president of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has done just that. His conclusion:The Boehner-GOP plan is “tantamount to a form of ‘class warfare.’ If enacted, it could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.”
Think about that. As the economy teeters on the precipice of a double-dip recession, as millions of Americans search in vain for a job, as tens of millions of homeowners are underwater, as poverty soars and the middle class is hammered, the Speaker of the House is pushing a proposal that—let me repeat Greenstein’s analysis—“could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship in modern U.S. history.” Deep cuts in every domestic priority—from education for disabled children to food safety to homeland security to clean air and water. Followed by painful cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But not a dollar in new revenue. Not one corporate loophole closed, not one billionaire asked to pay one penny in higher taxes.
Oh, and if they don’t get their way they will cripple the Treasury’s ability to pay the debt—the debt, I hasten to add, that their policies created.
It has become a trope of the right to accuse Obama and the Democrats of trying to remake America in the image of Europe. That, of course, is silly as well as insulting to the people who gave us the Magna Carta and the Enlightenment, not to mention spaghetti. But in whose image would the radical Republicans remake us? Certainly not in the image of the Founding Fathers. The Republicans are already seeking to make Swiss cheese out of Mr. Madison’s masterpiece, littering the Constitution with amendments on budgeting, the line-item veto, gay marriage, abortion, school prayer, restricting birthright citizenship, and more.
Seems to me the GOP seeks a banana republic: a toxic blend of right-wing populism, anti-intellectualism, debt defaults, and an end to the ladder of economic opportunity. They would divide us into a few Haves and a lot of Have-Nots. And they would slowly crush the heart of progressive America—the rising middle class created by Democratic economic policies of education and empowerment. All while preserving, protecting, and defending a tiny oligarchy of millionaires and billionaires.
The right wing should ditch the tricorn hats and replace them with mirrored sunglasses. They truly are Banana Republicans.