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Born Again Deficit Virgins

Everything you need to know about the descent of the conservative movement into a hypocritical caricature is illustrated by two of its proudest cons

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Everything you need to know about the descent of the conservative movement into a hypocritical caricature is illustrated by two of its proudest constituencies: Republican deficit hawks and so-called "born again virgins." Having already violated the moral strictures they claim to hold dearest, each now asks the American people to join them in pretending their sin never happened. But unlike a generation of Republican leaders who built a mountain of national debt for the United States, the secondary virgins only screwed themselves.

The Republicans' shameless cynicism was perfectly captured by Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2002 proclaimed, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

Not, that is, if a Republican is in the White House. But when Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office and the $1.2 trillion deficit George W. Bush left for him there, the GOP quickly changed its tune. While the national debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled again under President Bush, House Minority Leader John Boehner in February decried the $787 billion emergency economic recovery spending as "one big down payment on a new American socialist experiment." By June, Boehner warned of the "crushing debt Washington Democrats are running up." And Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), Obama's aborted choice for Commerce Secretary, slapped the President last month, "we're basically on the path to a banana-republic-type of financial situation in this country." And, Gregg added:

"You can't keep throwing debt on top of debt."

Of course, throwing debt on top of debt is precisely what Gregg and his GOP allies have done for over a generation.

The Republicans' fiscal rot didn't begin with George W. Bush, but with Ronald Reagan. It was the legendary Gipper whose financial recklessness and tax-cutting fetish came to define the modern GOP.

The numbers tell the story. As predicted, Reagan's massive $749 billion supply-side tax cuts in 1981 quickly produced even more massive annual budget deficits. Combined with his rapid increase in defense spending, Reagan delivered not the balanced budgets he promised, but record-settings deficits. Even his OMB alchemist David Stockman could not obscure the disaster with his famous "rosy scenarios."

Forced to raise taxes twice to avert financial catastrophe (a fact conveniently forgotten in the conservative hagiography of Reagan), the Gipper nonetheless presided over a tripling of the American national debt. The $998 billion debt he inherited in 1981 exploded to $2.9 trillion by the end of his second term. By the time he left office in 1989, Ronald Reagan equaled the entire debt burden produced by the previous 200 years of American history.

For his part, George H.W. Bush hardly stemmed the flow of red ink. And when Bush the Elder broke his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge to address the cascading budget shortfalls, his own Republican Party turned on him. While Bush's apostasy helped ensure his defeat by Bill Clinton, it was Clinton's 1993 deficit-cutting package (passed without a single GOP vote in either house of Congress) which helped usher in the surpluses of the late 1990's.

Alas, they were to be short-lived. Inheriting a federal budget in the black and CBO forecast for a $5.6 trillion surplus over 10 years, President George W. Bush quickly set about dismantling the progress made under Clinton. Bush's $1.4 trillion tax cut in 2001, followed by a second round in 2003, accounted for the bulk of the yawning budget deficits he produced.

Like Reagan and Stockman before him, Bush resorted to the rosy scenario to claim he would halve the budget deficit by 2009. Before the financial system meltdown last fall, Bush's deficit already reached $490 billion. (And even before the passage of the Wall Street bailout, Bush had presided over a $4 trillion increase in the national debt, a staggering 71% jump.) By this January, the mind-numbing deficit figure reached $1.2 trillion, forcing President Bush to raise the debt ceiling to $11.3 trillion.

But despite studies showing that the payday for the richest Americans accounted for half of the mushrooming budget deficits of the Bush years, Judd Gregg in an interview with Forrest Sawyer on PBS Frontline tried to maintain the tried and untrue GOP talking point that tax cuts produce revenue gains for the Treasury:

SAWYER: Way back in 2000, there were surpluses projected, and that had come after some good luck with the economy and some hard work. And then came along this massive tax cut. Was that in retrospect a mistake?

GREGG: No, absolutely not. The surpluses that were projected weren't lost because of the tax cut. They were lost because of...the fact that we went into a recession as a result of 9/11 and the Internet bubble bursting...much like the real estate bubble we are going through today...The surpluses which we were running, which we thought we were going to run for a long time, simply weren't realized as a result of those two events.

Sadly for Gregg, his revisionist history is both transparent and wrong.

As David Leonhardt documented in the New York Times in June, "President Obama's agenda, ambitious as it may be, is responsible for only a sliver of the deficits, despite what many of his Republican critics are saying."

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(Click here to see the full image.)

In that jaw-dropping chart illustrating how today's trillion-dollar deficits were created, the Times concluded that even before the Bush recession commenced in December 2007, Dubya's dangerously irresponsible tax cuts and unfunded spending produced an ocean of red ink that dwarfed the impact of President Obama's stimulus and other spending programs:

"The economic growth under George W. Bush did not generate nearly enough tax revenue to pay for his agenda, which included tax cuts, the Iraq war, and Medicare prescription drug coverage."

Looking at the fiscal year 2009 data, former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett three weeks ago destroyed the mythology of the born again Republican deficit hawks:

Now let's fast forward to the end of fiscal year 2009, which ended on September 30. According to CBO, it ended with spending at $3,515 billion and revenues of $2,106 billion for a deficit of $1,409 billion.

To recap, the deficit came in $223 billion higher than projected [in January], but spending was $28 billion and revenues were $251 billion less than expected. Thus we can conclude that more than 100 percent of the increase in the deficit since January is accounted for by lower revenues. Not one penny is due to higher spending.

It should be further noted that revenues are lower to a large extent because of tax cuts included in the February stimulus. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, these tax cuts reduced revenues in FY2009 by $98 billion over what would otherwise have been the case. This is important because the Republican position has consistently been that tax cuts and only tax cuts are an appropriate response to the economic crisis...

I think there are grounds on which to criticize the Obama administration's anti-recession actions. But spending too much is not one of them. Indeed, based on this analysis, it is pretty obvious that spending - real spending on things like public works - has been grossly inadequate. The idea that Reagan-style tax cuts would have done anything is just nuts.

And to be sure, making the Bush tax cuts permanent would make the federal government's fiscal picture worse - much worse. As the AP detailed in October (see chart at the top of the page), continuing President Bush's massive tax windfall for the wealthiest Americans who need it least constitutes a grave threat to the nation's fiscal stability.

No doubt, the announcement this week that the monthly deficit for October reached a record $176 billion is a stark reminder of the dark clouds hanging over the U.S. budget. But given the magnitude of the economic downturn gripping the United States, deficit cutting will have to wait.

As for what shape that will take, the early signs are not promising. President Obama is said to be investigating a freeze of domestic spending in next year's budget, and may even advocate a 5% cut. But if that sounds like a warmed over version of Congress' Gramm-Rudman monstrosity of the Reagan years, the calls from some moderate Senate Democrats like Evan Bayh (D-IN) to outsource responsibility by creating a "deficit commission" is even worse. As the New York Times groused in March 1989, President George H.W. Bush tried that something like that, too:

The National Economic Commission's majority report on balancing the budget is a shamelessly superficial summary of President Bush's proposals. It endorses them all and rejects higher taxes. A minority report by six Democrats is more analytical and more critical of Mr. Bush. But it ducks the tax question, too. The enterprise thus ends, just as Mr. Bush had hoped, as a bipartisan flop.

Of course, President Obama is unlikely to follow in Bush 41's footsteps, who "scorned the commission publicly." In addition to pushing for the savings contained in the health care reforms now before Congress, Obama is more likely to back a package of entitlement reforms, spending cuts and tax increases. (Whether the President ultimately reverses course on his campaign promise not to raise taxes on those households earning less $250,000 a year, post-recession budgetary realities may off him no alternative.)

As for the Republicans, their formula is more of the same dogma that produced the deficit catastrophe in the first place. Butchering history and the truth, Sarah Palin regurgitated the Republican recipe in Hong Kong and (in almost identical language) in her book:

Ronald Reagan, he was faced with an even worse recession, and he showed us how to get out of here.

If you want real job growth, you cut taxes! And you reduce marginal tax rates on all Americans. Cut payroll taxes, eliminate capital gain taxes and slay the death tax, once and for all. Get federal spending under control, and then you step back and you watch the U.S. economy roar back to life. But it takes more courage for a politician to step back and let the free market correct itself than it does to push through panicky solutions or quick fixes.

Then again, Sarah Palin is also among the ranks of Republican crusaders for abstinence-only education. Her daughter, a poster child for its failure, has emerged an ambassador of sorts for teen abstinence despite her belief that "it's not realistic at all."

Neither is believing born again Republican deficit hawks.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)

UPDATE: Almost on cue, Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) this week offered a comical response to President Obama's plans for post-recession deficit cutting. Boehner, who voted for the Bush tax cuts and the unfunded Medicare prescription drug program in 2003, claimed, "Washington Democrats’ so-called 'war on deficits' is about a year late and more than a trillion dollars short."

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