When Republicans talk about deficits they are hypocrites and liars. The president and the Democratic leaders in Congress can't speak it that bluntly, but we can. And if we do, perhaps in time the president and the Democratic leaders in Congress will begin to speak it with the less emotionally charged words that the Republicans have no credibility on deficits. Any time a Democrat is on television and is asked about the politics of deficits, the response should begin with the simple message that the Republicans have no credibility on deficits. Any time a Democrat is debating a Republican on television, and the Republican mentions deficits, the response should begin with the simple message that the Republicans have no credibility on deficits. It's easy. It's factual. And with but a bit of message discipline, it could remake the nature of our political system.
Ronald Reagan used the deficit as an issue when he ran against President Carter. As president, Reagan ran up the largest deficit in U.S. history. The Republicans of his era talked a lot about a Balanced Budget Amendment, while consistently voting to run up the largest deficit in U.S. history. Reagan's successor, the heir to the Bush dynasty, outdid his mentor by running up an even larger deficit. President Clinton raised taxes, eliminated the deficit and created a surplus, and just coincidentally oversaw an enormous economic expansion and near full employment. The next heir to the Bush dynasty cut taxes, eviscerated the Clinton surplus, and outdid both his father and Reagan by breaking their records for creating the largest deficits in U.S. history. He also all but broke the economy. This isn't complicated. This isn't difficult to explain. What is difficult to explain is why the Democrats don't do a better and more consistent job of explaining it.
In sound bite form:
The Republicans have no credibility on deficits. The last Democratic president balanced the budget, while the last three Republican presidents successively outdid each other in creating record deficits. The Republicans have no credibility on deficits.
There is no reason to engage the Republicans on deficits. There is no reason to allow the media to create the illusion of a political debate on deficits. The Republicans have no credibility on deficits. They only ever mention it as an excuse to wage class warfare. When Democrats act as if this is a serious debate between equally serious people, they enable the Republicans. The Republicans have no credibility on deficits. When serious people sit down to discuss deficits, the Republicans do not belong at the table.
On Friday, President Obama provided a case study in terrible messaging on the deficit. When asked whether the American people are beginning to agree with the Republicans, the president said he thinks Speaker Boehner is operating in good faith but has some problems in his caucus, and then gratuitously added:
And I have to say this is tough on the Democratic side, too. Some of the things that I've talked about and said I would be willing to see happen, there are some Democrats who think that's absolutely unacceptable. And so that's where I'd have a selling job, Chuck, is trying to sell some of our party that if you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt and deficit just as much as if you're a conservative.
It was wrong on so many levels, it was shocking. First of all, the answer completely buys into the idea that we should be focusing on the deficit, just as the director of the Congressional Budget Office was underscoring that deficit reduction will hurt the economy. Which followed warnings from both Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and an earlier report by the CBO that spending cuts could undermine the economic "recovery." In other words, it's not only crazy progressives who think the focus on debt and deficits is misplaced. But even worse is that progressives have in fact been promoting responsible means of addressing the deficit. As Joan noted, Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) responded to the president with a reminder that:
The Progressive Caucus has introduced the only budget that creates a surplus by 2021 because we take seriously the need for a strong economy and manageable debt. Our budget eliminates the deficit in 10 years and creates jobs while protecting the programs our constituents rely on.
And even progressive bloggers have been promoting a plan that would eliminate the deficit, which begins by rescinding the Bush/Obama tax cuts. So the president's attempt to blame progressives was wrong on the framing and wrong on the facts. But even worse, it didn't focus on the real problem, which is that the Republicans have no credibility on deficits. The president should have said that. He should have reminded everyone that the last Democratic president balanced the budget, while the last three Republican presidents successively outdid each other in creating record deficits. And then he should have pointed out that in contrast to the Republicans, progressives have offered honest means of addressing the deficit that wouldn't undermine the "recovery" and wouldn't hurt the American people. But he didn't. He continued with this:
And the reason is because if the only thing we're talking about over the next year, two years, five years, is debt and deficits, then it's very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained, how do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure.
If you care about making investments in our kids and making investments in our infrastructure and making investments in basic research, then you should want our fiscal house in order, so that every time we propose a new initiative somebody doesn’t just throw up their hands and say, "Ah, more big spending, more government."
It would be very helpful for us to be able to say to the American people, our fiscal house is in order. And so now the question is what should we be doing to win the future and make ourselves more competitive and create more jobs, and what aspects of what government is doing are a waste and we should eliminate. And that's the kind of debate that I'd like to have.
Which was absurd at face value, because at a time when we were barely recovering from a deep recession and needed more federal stimulus, it was the president himself who decided to focus on the deficit when there was no reason to do so. And the president's statement was even more absurd, because as Joan also pointed out, no matter what Democrats do, Republicans will oppose socially responsible government spending. No matter what Democrats do, Republicans will posture as caring about fiscal responsibility, when they actually care about no such thing. Republicans have no credibility on deficits. They only ever use it as an excuse to wage class warfare. But the president didn't say that. And just as he last winter claimed to take John Boehner at his word not to hold the debt ceiling hostage for a ransom of deep spending cuts, even as Boehner is doing exactly that the president now claims Boehner is negotiating in good faith, while backhanding the very progressives who are presenting the responsible path forward that the Republicans are not. It's as if he still doesn't understand that the Republicans are trying to destroy him.
President Obama should be making the very simple and factual case that the Republicans have no credibility on deficits, but instead he is enabling them. He is saying that their focus on deficits is correct. He is saying that they are making good faith efforts to address the deficit while progressives irresponsibly are not. He is saying that Republicans actually care about the deficit, rather than that they are using it as an excuse to wage class warfare, and have never shown any honest interest in fiscal responsibility. He is saying that the entire Republican political approach on debt and deficits has an underlying honesty and integrity to it, and that if we balance the books, then Republicans will begin to be nicer and more rational and maybe even not continue to use every means at their disposal to undermine government efforts at helping people. Even as they're using every means at their disposal to undermine government efforts at helping people.
None of this is complicated. These dynamics distill to very simple and easily verified facts. It's about message discipline, but it's about much more than that. For such simple and easily verified facts to be so completely ignored, and for the ignoring of so many easily verified facts to be so necessary in order to make such specious arguments about deficits and responsibility and who does and doesn't have credibility and who is and isn't offering solutions in good faith, raises all sorts of questions. But what it all comes down to is this: the Republicans have no credibility on deficits. And the credibility on deficits of anyone anywhere who claims otherwise must be called into question.