It’s remarkable the degree to which television commentators are embracing interpretations of Republican fiscal profligacy which are either oblivious, unschooled or simply dishonest. One line has it that Republicans are shedding their former obsession with spending and deficits. Another had it that Republicans are realizing that their ‘base’ doesn’t really care as much about deficits as they thought. They really agree with Trump, who doesn’t care about deficits. All of this is nonsense – not based on a theory or interpretation but simple history and experience. In a word, facts. Deficits go up, often dramatically, under Republican governance and usually go down under Democrats. This isn’t an interpretation. It’s a simple fact. Nor is it an artifact of history or coincidence. It is because Republicans don’t care about deficits.
Modern American deficit spending began under Reagan. It was brought under some control under the first President Bush. This was largely because of pressure from congressional Democrats. But in his defense, Bush made major and highly difficult decisions to make this possible. It was largely by doing so that he started a war in his own party that played at least a large contributing role in his reelection defeat. The deficit went down dramatically under Bill Clinton and then exploded under George W. Bush. The deficit went up dramatically in the first year of President Obama’s presidency but almost entirely because of the financial crisis. It went down consistently over the course of his presidency. From 2008 to 2009, the deficit close to tripled to $1.413 trillion. It fell in each subsequent year both in dollar terms and in the more important measure of the percentage of GDP. Now we have it going up again. (Historical numbers here. Again, deficit as a percentage of GDP is the best measure.)
There’s an interesting and not implausible argument that it is divided government that is the best for the deficit. Let’s take the Clinton example. The argument here would be that what was critical were three things: First there’s the 1990 Bush/Dems budget deal. Then there’s the 1993 Clinton tax hike. Then it gets more complicated. Some would argue that it was the combination of Clinton’s tax increase followed by Republicans coming into power in 1995 and putting a brake on more Democratic spending. There’s some plausibility to this. And it may have played some role in enforcing spending restraint in the late 90s. The problem is that deficits have gone up most under unified Republican control. The early Bush years are the key example (as is today). President Bush came into office and pushed through a big tax cut which promptly pushed the country back into deficits. Spending also went up dramatically, both on the military (which at least in theory was driven by 9/11) but also on domestic spending.
After Bush left office and Republicans had seen their congressional majorities wiped away, they began to talk about Bush as some sort of outlier or heretic from Republican orthodoxy, embracing something called ‘big government conservatism’. But this was entirely retrospective and basically bunk.
The argument also doesn’t hold up on the Democratic side of the ledger. There’s a large faction of Democrats who do think Democrats should spend substantially more and not feel so bound by budget balancing. But in practice, this is not how Democrats govern, even when they have total control of the government.
Obamacare is a case in point. Democrats went to great lengths to make sure that the Affordable Care Act was deficit neutral, even marginally reducing the deficit. The same pattern applied generally under Clinton. Why do they do this? Partly this is because they feel cowed by decades of ‘tax and spend’ criticism. More importantly, the kind of people who believe in fiscal restraint and budgetary probity on principle are now mainly Democrats. You can see this in policy terms. But more interesting historically is that you can see it in geographical terms. That wasn’t always the case. Many or even most of those people were once Republicans. But this isn’t something that changed four or five years ago. You have to go back forty and even fifty years to find that. This is a decades-old change – almost as old as the segregationist Dixiecrat exodus from the Democratic party to the GOP. Indeed, they are all part of the same transformation.
The simple reality is that Republicans don’t like taxes. Full stop.
Deficits are a stalking horse Republicans use as a political cudgel when they are out of power. Again. Full stop. You simply cannot argue with the fact that deficits have risen dramatically under Reagan and Bush and now under Trump. Republicans do not care about deficits. They care about keeping taxes as low as possible. What has changed slightly over the last forty years is a marginal difference in attitudes toward spending. Since the late 70s, the guiding star of Republican politics is getting taxes as low as possible. Spending was basically an afterthought, except for the degree to which spending might create upward pressure on taxes.
But beginning in the Bush years, accelerating in the Obama years and now coming into its own in the Trump years spending has become more of a positive as long as it is being spent on Republican stakeholders, as long as it is being spent on the right people. Largely this means the military but also border walls and a bunch of other things. That is an interesting change and transformation which has tracked the GOP’s transformation from anti-government to ethno-nationalist orientations. But the one thing that has never changed in almost fifty years is that Republican do not care about deficits. Deficits will rise under Republican rule, especially under unified Republican rule, as surely as night follows day.