Fox Business host Stuart Varney on Friday interviewed Mark Sanford, who is running a primary challenge against President Donald Trump, on issues of the deficit and debt. And while it wasn’t quite as fiery an exchange as Varney had with Joe Walsh, another long-shot GOP candidate for 2020, it was in its own way highly revealing about the conservative mind on fiscal concerns: For most of them, they really aren’t concerned at all — at least not when Republican politicians are the ones in power and making the situation worse.
“Look, we've got a deficit this year of approximately — almost a trillion dollars. And it is growing,” Varney said to Sanford. (Note: The deficit could be more than $1 trillion in the latest figures.) “But you know, it's been growing for a long, long time — and nothing happens. … At the moment, I don't see a downside. It's not like we've got a sudden crash of some sort. It's not like suddenly the banks run out of money, or whatever. It's not like that. It's not an immediate problem, is it?”
To the politically uninitiated observer, this would seem like an odd statement for somebody like Varney to make. After all, back in 2011 — when President Barack Obama had been pursuing his fiscal stimulus and other programs to turn back the crisis of the Great Recession, Varney had warned that Obama would soon drive U.S. debt to a crisis level “very, very soon, and we look like Greece within three years.”
As Media Matters’ Parker Molloy has laid out in detail, the media continue to take Republicans seriously as debt scolds, even though by their own admission the entire thing is really just a political ploy to undercut Democratic policy proposals but never to stop Republican ones.
For example, when Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC) was asked in 2017 about the deficit, during the debates over the Republican-led tax cuts, he told The New York Times, “It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led. It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”
Or, as radio show host Rush Limbaugh boasted this past July to a concerned caller: “Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”
In another recent example, and also from July, Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade declared that “the next president” would have “to do this hard thing of saying we have to tighten our belts and cut spending.” (As it happened, Varney was also part of that day’s morning show panel.)
Sanford, a former South Carolina governor and member of Congress, argued his case that the current $1 trillion deficit really is a problem: Essentially, to have such high deficits and low interest rates during a fairly smooth economy, as the situation is right now, leaves the entire country vulnerable, as he argued we don’t have the tools that will be needed for the government and the Federal Reserve to address the next recession, when it should eventually come.
Varney’s own response, then, was simply to pull a variation of the “both sides” maneuver. He invoked the policy discussions during Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate, saying: “You know that they would expand the deficit like you wouldn't believe. Are you worried about criticizing President Trump and the Republicans — and allowing the Democrats to run that deficit up to the sky?”
And Sanford — who was among the ranks of deficit scolds even during the Great Recession during the Obama years, when the government and central bank were trying to harness the economic tools he now describes — then agreed that the Democrats would of course be worse. “It was a debate of more versus more — I totally agree with you.”
So make no mistake, the deficit will be back as a hot political issue in the media and politics again — as soon as there is once more a Democratic president. And many of these same names will be featured members of the chorus.