For the last 40 years, Republicans have run as the party of small government and fiscal responsibility. But, after pushing a gigantic, deficit-busting tax bill in November and a gigantic, deficit-busting two-year budget last week, many are pronouncing the days of the fiscally sound, drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub Republican Party to be over.
“It can now be said that Republican lawmakers care about the federal deficit only when they want to use it to bash Democratic presidents,” opined The New York Times editorial board in a searing op-ed. “I’m old enough to remember when the Republican Party was pro-FBI, pro-morality and anti-deficits,” scoffed Max Boot in The Washington Post. In Politico, David Rogers argued that the GOP’s credibility on fiscal issues had eroded with the passage of two bills: “The White House can no longer hide the immense deficits it would create.”
It’s true: Despite consistently arguing that deficit reduction is not just a core Republican priority, but an existential imperative, when in power Republicans have shown no fiscal restraint whatsoever—the deficit has increased significantly faster under Republican presidents than Democratic ones. The problem is, even without any credibility on the deficit, Republicans aren’t going to change their tune. As it is, they’re already laying the groundwork to reverse position as soon as they’re out of power, when they’ll once again reclaim the mantle of restraint. It’s all part of a decades-old GOP scam. The real economic dynamic of the Republican Party is: Spend big today, recant tomorrow.
In 2009, Mitch McConnell decried the $787 billion stimulus as “one of the most expensive votes in history.” Four years later, shortly after Barack Obama’s second inauguration, McConnell made the case that lowering the national debt was essential if Americans wanted social spending programs to survive. “Only one thing can save this country, and that’s to get a handle on this deficit and debt issue,” McConnell said. “No action means the demise” of entitlement programs, he added. “We have to assure they will be there for future generations.”
These two arguments—that the national debt is a bill we pass on to our children and that it will ultimately mean the demise of social-welfare programs—are key GOP talking points when they’re in the minority. But neither of these issues were reflected in either the tax bill or in the budget. Instead, these bills respectively gave massive tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy and increased defense spending. In neither case were the long-term fiscal health of either the country’s finances or its social-welfare programs taken into account.
That very well may be the point. As my colleague Sarah Jones argued today, Republicans see deficit-spending as a win-win. They can spend big on issues they care about (like corporate tax breaks and the military), racking up big bills that they can later use as an argument to gut social spending programs, like food for the poor and health care. Deficit spending, in other words, is totally fine as long the nation is racking up debt for Republican priorities. The truth is, if Republicans really did care about the deficit, they would use the opportunity they have now—control of the presidency and both legislatures—to do something about it. It’s rarely that simple in politics, but in this case, it is.
But what’s most interesting about the hypocrisy argument is that many Republicans themselves have already taken it up. Shortly before the Senate voted on the budget, Rand Paul embarked on a lengthy filibuster in which he slammed his own party for breaking its promises on spending. “When the Democrats are in power, Republicans appear to be the conservative party,” Paul said. “But when Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party. The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.”
Versions of this argument have been voiced by a number of other Republicans and conservatives as well. Some of this backlash came from familiar quarters: The Freedom Caucus, which voted against the bill in the House, was predictably incensed, telling Chris Wallace that the “swamp won.” Former Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney, who currently serves as the budget director, tried to thread a needle, making the case that he would have opposed the package as a congressman but supports it now that he’s leading the Office of Management and Budget. And conservative commentator Guy Benson made the case that Republicans will face a backlash from voters for abandoning restraint: “I think there will be some Tea Party-leaning Republicans who are wondering, Where did the Tea Party go?.… And I think the Republicans have done themselves harm.”
These Republicans are setting up a simple narrative: They’re going to get clobbered in the midterms. And though 2020 is a long way away, it’s looking more and more probable that Donald Trump will become the first one-term president since George H.W. Bush. Nevertheless, of all the reasons that Republicans will ultimately lose seats in Congress—to say nothing of all the reasons that could cost Trump the presidency—spending will likely rank fairly low for most voters. After all, Republican voters were already staying home in special elections before these bills were announced, let alone passed. But Republicans will still make the case that they lost their way and forgot their principles and that this, and not all of the other stuff (immigration, women’s rights, North Korea, tax breaks for the rich, etc.), is why they got clobbered in successive elections.
Worse, they might just get away with all of it. Historically speaking, Republican rhetoric on the deficit has always been shady. No president increased the deficit more than the avatar of small-government conservatism, Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, George W. Bush pushed massive tax cuts, increased spending, and launched two very expensive wars, all of which resulted in a gigantic deficit. But Republicans have, nevertheless, managed to continue to successfully push the narrative that they, not Democrats, are the party voters can trust with the budget. Given their success at navigating this rank hypocrisy over the years, it’s no wonder that the GOP thinks they can get away with this scam all over again.