It begins. As predictable as sunrise and sunset, Republicans and their right-wing media allies are marking the beginning of President Joe Biden’s administration by once again pretending to care about the deficit and national debt.
During his presidency, self-proclaimed “king of debt” Donald Trump increased the federal budget deficit from $584 billion during the Obama era to a record-high $3.3 trillion. In January 2017, the national debt was $19.9 trillion; in December 2020, it was $27.7 trillion, a nearly $8 trillion increase. Far from fulfilling his promise of eliminating the national debt, he ballooned it -- and Republicans didn’t seem to mind all that much.
In 2009, Trump economic advisor Larry Kudlow went apocalyptic over “humongous deficits” and “out of control spending.” In 2019, as the deficit crossed the $1 trillion mark for the first time in history, however, Kudlow said it “doesn’t bother me right now.” About a month later, Kudlow doubled down and said, “I don’t see [the national debt] as a huge problem right now at all.”
In 2020, then-acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who had built a reputation as a deficit hawk during his time in Congress, admitted during a speech that concerns about debt and deficits were mostly just a political cudgel for Republicans to use to stop Democrats from enacting policies conservatives didn’t like:
My party is very interested in deficits when there is a Democrat in the White House. The worst thing in the whole world is deficits when Barack Obama was the president. Then Donald Trump became president, and we’re a lot less interested as a party.
Now that a Democrat is back in the White House, Republicans are starting to feign concern about deficits and the debt once again.
During the January 15 episode of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-FL) pushed back on Democrats’ expected COVID-19 relief bill as a “bailout package for blue states.” Waltz slammed Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) for “going to the big piggy bank in the sky that prints nonstop money.”
During the January 15 episode of Your World with Neil Cavuto, guest Alfredo Ortiz railed against “the idea that there is no such thing as debt or deficits and that you can print money to fund all of these wacky social programs that are on Bernie Sanders’ list.”
On that day’s edition of Bill Hemmer Reports, conservative commentator Steve Moore warned that of Biden’s COVID-19 relief plan, “It looks like Bernie Sanders wrote this bill,” adding that “Republicans are going to say, wait a minute. This debt is getting out of control.”
On Newsmax, Moore called the plan “a fiscal atrocity.”
The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, has repeatedly praised Trump and Republicans’ 2017 tax bill, which is projected to add $1.9 trillion to the debt. True to form, the group has once again started feigning concern about “our children and grandchildren” being saddled with “more crushing debt.”
Billion-dollar bailouts of incompetent state governments like New York and California will only saddle our children and grandchildren with more crushing debt while rewarding these states’ recklessness.
— Heritage Foundation (@Heritage) January 15, 2021
People on the right have successfully branded Republicans as the more fiscally responsible of the two parties, even though that’s not actually backed up by data.
For several decades, Democrats have left office with lower deficits than they began with and Republicans have done exactly the opposite. At the beginning of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, the deficit was roughly $78.9 billion. At the end of it, the deficit stood at nearly twice that amount: $152.6 billion. By the end of George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the deficit was roughly $255 billion. President Bill Clinton actually left office with a $128.2 billion surplus, which President George W. Bush turned into a $1.4 trillion deficit. Obama reduced the deficit by more than half, bringing it back down to $584.6 billion, and Trump drove it back up to $3.3 trillion.
In 2002, to justify a simultaneous increase in military spending and cut in taxes, Vice President Dick Cheney told then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
While campaigning for president, Trump argued that the U.S. can’t default on its debts because it can always just print more money. Despite this and his deficit-exploding policies, the same people currently fretting over the cost of Democratic policies sat in silent agreement with Trump, making clear that worries about the debt and deficit are just tactical feints.
During a July 2019 Democratic primary debate, then-candidate Pete Buttigieg nodded to the predictable ways conservatives push back against liberals.
“It’s time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say,” said Buttigieg. “Look, if it's true that if we embrace a far-left agenda, they're gonna say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, … they’re gonna say we're a bunch of crazy socialists.”
It’s unsurprising. One day, someone like right-wing commentator Hugh Hewitt defends Trump’s giant deficits by saying that he “used to care.”
I used to care but (1) we are having an experiment with how much debt it equites to spark hyper-inflation and (2) Republicans learned that spending the next generation’s money is great politics in the here and now and thought “Why let just Ds do this?” https://t.co/qFFQT3vA2p
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) February 6, 2019
And later, as Democrats regain power, he’ll go right back to shouting about just how “unsustainable” the debt is.
Total national debt is 27.8 Trillion. Annual GDP is 21.2 T National debt in 2009: 12 T. In 2019: 22 T. National debt is now 130% of GDP. It was 35% of GDP in 1980. Devastation of virus must be met, responsibly as w/ Cares Act, but we need a plan for the debt. soon. Unsustainable
— Hugh Hewitt (@hughhewitt) January 15, 2021
It’s clear from decades of evidence that Republicans aren’t actually all that concerned with deficits and the debt, but instead use them as convenient excuses to block Democrats from enacting popular legislation. It’s easy to argue that while you would love to expand programs like Medicare and Medicaid, they’re simply too expensive. It’s a lot harder to oppose expanding those programs because you don’t really care what happens to people who currently slip through the cracks. It’s easy to argue for cutting funding for Meals on Wheels when you frame it in terms of spending money we don’t have, but it’s much more difficult to oppose the good that program does.
Arguing that we simply can’t afford something is a cop-out, and in recent years, Democrats have been trying to fight back against this strategy. During a 2018 CNN interview, Ocasio-Cortez pointed out just how hollow this argument is, saying, “We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do, but when it comes to tax cuts for billionaires and when it comes to unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money very easily.”
It’s a fair point that many in media seem hesitant to call Republican politicians on. Why do we scrutinize every cent of spending that goes to social programs at home while funneling an endless supply of money into military spending and tax cuts? Until the press shows a willingness to fight back against bad-faith Republican arguments based on concern for the debt and deficit, they will keep making them.