Fox Business host Lou Dobbs recently appeared on panel alongside fellow network hosts to discuss news that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell planned to cut interest rates by 0.25%.
“If you want to blame the Federal Reserve and a too-aggressive monetary policy in pushing rates tighter, you could. If you want to look at both parties’ abandonment of anything hinting of fiscal restraint, you could look at that as well,” said Neil Cavuto. “The fact of the matter is there are a lot of hands in this.”
Cavuto’s blame for “both parties” seemed to catch Dobbs’ attention, and he quickly found an opening to claim that President Donald Trump has done “a good job” on the economy broadly. What followed was a bizarre, flailing, yet instructive exchange in which Dobbs kept shifting the topic to the unemployment rate while Cavuto tried to get him to honestly answer whether “this president has done anything to contain the deficit and the debt.”
What’s remarkable in the exchange is that as Dobbs tries to pivot to positive economic indicators -- not the deficit -- Cavuto just won’t let him off the hook. Overmatched and confused that he wasn’t getting the same treatment from Cavuto that he usually gets from the paper tiger adversaries who join him on Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs was saved from further embarrassment by Bartiromo’s intervention.
For the record, the answer to the question is clear: Since Trump took office, the deficit has skyrocketed and is on pace to surpass the $1 trillion mark this year for the first time ever. Tax revenues are down, thanks in part to Trump’s 2017 tax law, and spending is actually up.
Dobbs’ most shameless day as a commentator may actually turn out to be his most valuable. In so nakedly shilling for Trump’s economic policies on live TV, he made it clear that we no longer need to take deficit scolds seriously -- especially those who cheer on budget-obliterating tax bills and celebrate destructive trade wars.
Not all deficit scolds are as hypocritical or easily identifiable as Dobbs, but he’s certainly not alone.
Dobbs has built an entire career around hard-line positions on issues like trade, immigration, and budget deficits. For years, the man who used to call himself “Mr. Independent” presented himself as a commentator unafraid to criticize politicians on the left and the right. Though he’s come to increasingly embrace the role of right-wing partisan since his unceremonious exit from CNN in 2009, it wasn’t until Trump entered the political picture that Dobbs completed his metamorphosis into the toady he was destined to become, to be propped in front of a Fox Business camera for public viewing each weeknight.
In Trump, Dobbs has found his ideological soulmate, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Aside from the occasional burst of frustration over the administration’s reluctance to rule by executive fiat, the Fox Business host plays the role of Trump’s biggest fan.
Of course, Dobbs must know deep down that his years of using concern over rising deficits to wave off progressive and moderate policies was anything but genuine. He must know that the unemployment rate and the number of regulations being cut have little to do with whether the government is taking in more money than it’s spending. He must know that he’s exposing himself as a fraud when he severs the final ties to his own supposedly long-held principles just to appease his audience of one in the White House. This all must be worth it to him, and that’s why he clings so tightly to his reflexive defenses, reciting rote sound bites mimicking the president and adopting his speaking style.
Dobbs is making a bet that people won’t remember his hypocrisy -- and it’s entirely possible that he’s right to do that. But on this issue in particular, Dobbs highlights a broader hypocrisy.
During President Barack Obama’s administration, Dobbs was glued to deficit-related news, claiming that deficit reduction was the “number one issue in the minds and hearts of the American people,” a statement not supported by data. He eyed Obama’s 2011 budget with suspicion, calling it “nuts” that Obama was calling for deficit spending. In 2013, Dobbs tweeted about Obama’s State of the Union address in which he promised to address the deficit, scoffing, “Runs up trillions in deficits, now expects us to believe he'll spend even more without deficit.” He made a point of highlighting deficit-related news that painted Obama in a negative light throughout his presidency.
According to one GOP congressman, concern over the deficit is little more than a talking point to use against Democrats. It’s an effective one, too.
In 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney famously told then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill that “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” justifying a simultaneous cut in taxes and increase in military spending. In eight years, the Bush administration ran massive deficits and more than doubled the national debt. Conservative concern about the rising deficit was put largely on hold, only to resume once a Democrat was back in office.
Fifteen years later, Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) was asked in September 2017 whether he was concerned about the deficit as House Republicans pursued tax cut legislation.
“It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led,” he told The New York Times. “It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”
Indeed, it is a great talking point, and one that right-wing media figures are all too willing to advance.
Some, like Rush Limbaugh, have admitted that they never actually cared all that much about the deficit to begin with. Though he spent the Obama era slamming the president for not doing enough to address the deficit, Limbaugh changed his tune with Trump in office. Asked in July about the growing deficit through Trump’s first two years in office, Limbaugh replied, “All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”
Others have tried to have it both ways, acknowledging that the deficit is something that needs to be dealt with, but maintaining that Trump shouldn’t be held accountable for the increase under his watch. During the July 18 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade claimed there is a political responsibility to do “this hard thing of saying we have to tighten our belts and cut spending,” but he pushed that burden off of Trump and onto “the next president.”
On the July 22 edition of America’s Newsroom, Reagan economic adviser and frequent Fox guest Art Laffer excused Trump for not doing anything to reduce government spending during his first two years in office, citing “this contentious Congress and political environment.”
During the October 17 episode of Fox Business’ Varney & Co., host Stuart Varney seemed baffled by the increasing deficit and questioned how it could be on the rise given the strong economy. The answer, of course, was the Trump tax cuts, passed the December prior.
Deficit rhetoric has upheld the idea that Republicans are the more “fiscally responsible” political party, though that’s not actually the case.
In August 2018, then-Democratic House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked how she planned to pay for expensive government programs like “Medicare for All.” She responded by calling out the double standard that Democrats are held to over conservatives, saying, “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.”
She was right, too; when it comes to authorizing the use of military force, legislators are expected to cast their votes in favor of increased spending lest they be branded as a “traitor.” Meanwhile, conservative predictions that tax cuts will pay for themselves are presented as legitimate possibilities -- even though they have arguably never once been correct.
Fox News’ Chris Wallace highlighted this hypocrisy last month when he drilled acting White House chief of staff and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, noting that the deficit was on the decline during Obama’s second term, when it decreased by an average of 11% a year. Wallace noted that the deficit has increased 15% a year during Trump’s first two years in office. “How can Mick Mulvaney, budget hawk, support this?” asked Wallace.
Take it from Dobbs, Limbaugh, Laffer, or any number of other right-wing media figures: For as long as Trump is in office, deficits won’t matter to many.
For too long, mainstream outlets have taken conservative concerns about the deficit at face value. It's well past time for mainstream media to see deficit scolding for what it is -- just another right-wing talking point.