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GOP on the Debt: No Democratic President, No Problem

July 12, 2011

Summing up the current Republican debt ceiling hostage-taking are two of the most telling statements in the annals of American politics. "Reagan," Vice President Dick Cheney famously declared in 2002, "proved deficits don't matter." And on Monday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor added, "What I don't think that the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote for a debt ceiling increase." Not, it turns out, if a Republican is in the White House. And for a GOP now pushing the United States towards economic calamity, that difference is all the difference.
After having previously declared that failure to raise the nation's $14.3 trillion borrowing limit would be a "financial disaster," today Speaker John Boehner declared, "This debt limit increase is [Obama's] problem." Cantor, the same lieutenant who forced Boehner to retreat from a compromise "grand bargain" on deficit reduction, explained that Republicans had already sacrificed enough:

"A vote to increase the debt limit in this country is an existential question for a fiscal conservative," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday. "These votes aren't easy. ...What I don't think that the White House understands is how difficult it is for fiscal conservatives to say they're going to vote for a debt ceiling increase."

Of course, when a Republican sat in the Oval Office, it wasn't so difficult at all.

As you may recall, Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt during his presidency. With George W. Bush in the White House, Republican majorities voted seven times to raise the borrowing ceiling and nearly doubled the U.S. debt again. During Dubya's tenure, the current GOP leadership team of Boehner, Cantor, McConnell and Kyl voted a total a total of 19 times to jack up the debt ceiling by over $4 trillion.
As it turns out, analyses by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities showed that the Bush tax cuts accounted for half of the deficits during his tenure, and if made permanent, over the next decade would cost the U.S. Treasury more than Iraq, Afghanistan, the recession, TARP and the stimulus - combined. Sadly, tax cuts for John Boehner's supposed job creators didn't create jobs, but they did produce a mountain of debt. The Washington Post summed up the CBO's leading cause of the U.S. budgetary hemorrhaging:

The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former president George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That's nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt.

That tax cut windfall for the wealthy, two unfunded wars, and the unpaid-for Medicare prescription drug plan fueling the flood of red ink happened on George W. Bush's watch. And McConnell, Boehner and friends voted for all of it. Then again, as Orrin Hatch described his party's performance during the Bush era:

"It was standard practice not to pay for things."

Nevertheless, 235 House Republicans and 40 GOP Senators voted to double-down on that disaster. The Ryan budget they approved adds $6 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, $4 trillion of which is dedicated to new tax cuts. And despite all their tough talk, as Speaker Boehner admitted, that would require Republicans to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly in the future.
Sadly, the Republicans' selective amnesia must now rank among the greatest - and most successful - political double-standards in recent memory. Worse still, despite the ongoing economic crisis, Republicans have largely succeeded in replacing the jobs deficit with the budget deficit as the nation's number 1 priority.
The triumph of the GOP messaging machine was reflected in an April Washington Post/Pew Research poll. In just the four months since the Republican majority took control of the House, the percentage of Americans believing the budget deficit is a major problem which must be addressed now catapulted from 70% to 81%. But even more revealing is an April Gallup survey (chart below, left) which showed the deficit (17%) rivaling the unemployment (19%) and the overall state of the economy (26%). And as the National Journal revealed in May (chart below, right), the shift from jobs to deficits in American political discourse is reflected in media coverage as well.

While those cyclical swings in budget angst reflect a shocking victory of the conservative deficit narrative, the public may be catching onto the game. In May, polls by CBS and Gallup showed that Americans by a 2-to-1 margin oppose raising the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. (Among Republicans, the gap was a staggering 70% to 8%.) But thanks to the dire warnings of economists, think tanks, international financial bodies and even GOP-friendly business groups, the tide may be turning. A new Pew Research survey showed Americans now split as to whether raising the debt or defaulting on U.S. debt obligations is the greater concern.
As for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, his goal remains the same: ensuring Barack Obama is a one-term President. McConnell is now pushing a plan to give Obama the power to make the choice to raise the debt ceiling on his own. When it comes to the U.S. national debt, for Republicans history began on January 20, 2009. And as McConnell made clear again today, it will hopefully end on January 20, 2013:

"I have little question that as long as this President is in the Oval Office, a real solution is unattainable."

After all, as Dick Cheney told us, when a Republican in the White House, deficits don't matter.
(For more background, see "10 Things the GOP Doesn't Want You to Know About the Debt.")


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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