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Seeing red: where did all the deficit-cutting Republicans go?

None of the usual arguments made to justify deficit spending apply

September 27, 2018

11:38 AM

27 September 2018

11:38 AM

An acquaintance recently told me that I have become a ‘Red Tory.’ The description probably fits. Indeed, I rather like it.

As I get older, when it comes to matters related to social justice I find myself reaching conclusions of the sort commonly heard from Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts. I’ve long since outgrown any social Darwinian inclinations that I might have entertained as a young man. Use public resources to help the downtrodden and distressed and to ensure equal opportunity for all? You bet: I’m as Left as they come.

Similarly, on issues related to war and peace, I’ve become a thoroughgoing dove. My idea of ‘supporting the troops’ is to keep them out of harm’s way, except when genuinely vital interests are at stake. Afghanistan doesn’t make the cut. Nor do Iraq, Syria, and Somalia. If Senator George McGovern were still around to run for the presidency, he’d have my vote.

Yet on other matters, I remain very much a Tory of the most old-fashioned kind. For example, I persist in believing that budgets should balance. Back in the day when I considered myself a Republican – now in the distant past – one of the reasons that I favoured the GOP was that party leaders never ceased to denounce deficit spending, while vowing that if they ever came to power the books would balance.

Yet when Republican presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush did rule the roost, the red ink kept on flowing. Indeed, more often than not, deficits were higher when Republicans were calling the shots than when those terrible tax-and-spend liberals were in charge. Ronald Reagan offers a prime example. I don’t recall Reagan or any of his minions apologising for massively increasing the national debt.

And so we come to Donald Trump, the latest Republican president to reiterate these hoary GOP promises. As a candidate, Trump had vowed to balance the federal budget ‘quickly to ‘get rid of’ the entire national debt ‘over a period of eight years.’ Given Trump’s proven business acumen, this promised to be easy. So he claimed, at least.

Well, the preliminary results are in and the fiscal status of the US government looks pretty much like the status of America’s war in Afghanistan: grim and getting worse. The deficit for fiscal year 2019 is projected to top $1 trillion. The total national debt will soon exceed a whopping $22 trillion.

Now in the topsy-turvy world of American politics, obsessed these days with sexual abuse, real and alleged, and with inane presidential tweets, these troubling milestones are attracting little attention. Yet reflect on the implications: According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost of servicing the debt next year will hit $390 billion, nearly 50 per cent more than it was in 2017. Within a decade, interest payments on the national debt are projected to exceed $900 billion per year. Although the US military budget is the world’s largest by a wide margin, the United States will soon spend more just to service its debt than it does to defend itself. Take that, Xi Jinping!

With an ostensibly conservative president in the White House and ostensibly conservative Republicans controlling (for the moment at least) both Houses of Congress, what are we to make of these extraordinary trends? It’s worth noting that none of the usual arguments made to justify deficit spending apply. The United States is not struggling to extract itself from some economic catastrophe like the Great Depression or Great Recession. With the economy clicking along quite nicely, there’s no need for Keynesian pump priming. Nor is the nation facing some looming existential threat that requires national mobilisation whatever the costs involved. Our wars today are wars of choice, not of national survival or necessity.

So what is going on? Two possible explanations present themselves. The first is that – as Democrats frequently allege – the Republican Party is devoid of principles, utterly corrupt, and in the pocket of interest groups that couldn’t care less about overall fiscal responsibility. The second is that the very concept of politics as an undertaking devoted to advancing the common good has vanished from Washington, replaced by a game of grab-whatever-you-can-get for those who put you in office so that you can land a cushy job as a lobbyist when you are sent packing.

Or perhaps both explanations apply.

Andrew Bacevich is the author of Twilight of the American Century, which is due out in November.


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