To the displeasure of many on both sides of aisle, President Obama on today is hosting the so-called Fiscal Responsibility Summit at the White House. While some Democrats question the timing of Obama's expenditure of political capital on Social Security, Medicare and other entitlement reform, obstructionist Republicans are ridiculing the event even as they hype the myth of Republican fiscal discipline.
And a myth it surely is. Far from the deficit hawks of Republican legend, the modern Republican Party from Reagan forward devastated the U.S. treasury, leaving mounting debt and hemorrhaging red ink for as far as the eye can see.
Of course, you'd never know it listening to the grousing from some of President Obama's Republican guests. On Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declared the summit "sobering up here and beginning to rethink the kind of debt that we're laying on future generations." And New Hampshire Senator and aborted Commerce Secretary Judd Gregg turned on his would-have-been boss, sneering:
''It can either be a nice press event. Or it can be a substantive event. History tells us it will be the first. We've had these meetings before. There's always a lot of people willing to point out the problem."
As the history of the past 30 years shows, those people "willing to point out the problem" are called Republicans. The ones doing something about it are called Democrats.
As the chart above shows, the national debt under president Reagan, Bush 41 and Bush 43 exploded as a percentage of GDP, interrupted only by the all-too-brief fiscal sanity of the Clinton years. And to be sure, the budget surpluses of the late 1990's seem like a distant memory.
That didn't prevent the AP's Liz Sidoti, who famously presented John McCain with a box of doughnuts during a 2008 AP campaign forum, from faithfully regurgitating last week Republicans' talking points about a return to their tall tale of the GOP as heroic guardians of the national purse:
"The GOP's strategy of emphasizing its so-called bedrock principles - restrained spending, limited government and deep tax cuts - comes as the party works to rehabilitate itself after eight years of Bush's leadership and rebound from back-to-back elections that saw Republicans lose their grip on Congress and the White House."
Unfortunately, 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 doubling of the American national debt. 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.
And so it goes. The Republican Party of No decries President Obama's deficit spending urgently needed to rescue the country from the economic cataclysm over which they presided. While relatively minor adjustments to the 1980's grand compromise are needed to assure the long-term solvency of Social Security, the GOP will no doubt balk at the serious health care reforms required to avoid the looming Medicare train wreck.
Regardless, the Republicans will continue to point the finger of blame for the endless sea of red ink they themselves produced. As Vice President Dick Cheney famously said in 2002, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
(This post also appears at Perrspectives.)