Democrats are the real fis­cal con­ser­va­tives

The Citizens' Voice - - Editorial - BY DAVID LEONHARDT

By now, no­body should be sur­prised when the Repub­li­can Party vi­o­lates its claims of fis­cal rec­ti­tude. In­creas­ing the deficit — through big tax cuts, mostly for the rich — has been the defin­ing fea­ture of the party’s eco­nomic pol­icy for decades. When Paul Ryan and other Repub­li­cans call them­selves fis­cal con­ser­va­tives, they’re ba­si­cally do­ing a ver­sion of the old Marx Brothers bit: “Who ya gonna be­lieve, me or your own eyes?”

Ever so slowly, con­ven­tional wis­dom has started to rec­og­nize this re­al­ity. Af­ter Ryan’s re­tire­ment an­nounce­ment last week, only a few head­lines called him a deficit hawk. Peo­ple are catch­ing on to the con.

But there is still a ma­jor way that the con­ven­tional wis­dom is wrong: It doesn’t give the Demo­cratic Party enough credit for its ac­tual fis­cal con­ser­vatism.

Over the last few decades, Democrats have re­peat­edly re­duced the deficit. They have raised taxes. They have cut mil­i­tary spend­ing and cor­po­rate welfare. Some of them have even tried to hold down the cost of cher­ished so­cial pro­grams. Oba­macare, for ex­am­ple, in­cluded enough cost con­trols and tax in­creases that it has cut the deficit on net.

I first want to spend a few mo­ments on the per­cep­tion gap, be­cause it high­lights a prob­lem that’s big­ger than bud­get pol­icy.

The coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal im­pres­sions are heav­ily in­flu­enced by peo­ple who are sup­posed to be neu­tral ob­servers — re­porters, tele­vi­sion an­chors, think­tank ex­perts and the like. They’re not per­fectly neu­tral, of course. They have their bi­ases. But most as­pire to par­ti­san neu­tral­ity. It’s an hon­or­able as­pi­ra­tion.

And it’s not easy to achieve. For one thing, they’re in­un­dated by par­ti­san ad­vo­cates. If your job in­volved lis­ten­ing to peo­ple claim that, say, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Syria pol­icy was a suc­cess or that Ge­orge W. Bush’s eco­nomic record was un­der­rated, you too would de­velop a ro­bust skep­ti­cism.

The prob­lem is this skep­ti­cism of­ten morphs into a for­mu­laic ap­proach that can it­self be­come un­teth­ered from re­al­ity. What­ever the facts, many jour­nal­ists and Wash­ing­ton ex­perts re­vert to fa­mil­iar sto­ry­lines: Both sides are hyp­o­crit­i­cal. The par­ties care more about scor­ing par­ti­san points than get­ting any­thing done. The ex­trem­ists have taken over, and there are no moder­ates left.

All of these sto­ry­lines have at least some truth to them. Like a stopped clock, they some­times have a lot of truth. But they are in­deed like a stopped clock. They never change.

I’ve spent 25 years as a jour­nal­ist and have re­peat­edly seen the dis­com­fort that jour­nal­ists feel about pro­claim­ing one po­lit­i­cal party to be more suc­cess­ful than the other on vir­tu­ally any sub­stan­tive is­sue. We jour­nal­ists are much more com­fort­able hold­ing up the im­per­fec­tions of each and cast­ing our­selves as the so­phis­ti­cated skep­tic.

Some­times, though, one party re­ally is do­ing a bet­ter job than the other. To refuse to ad­mit it is to miss the story.

So it is with bud­get pol­icy. Get this: Since 1977, the three pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions that have over­seen the deficit in­creases are the three Repub­li­can ones. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s tax cut is vir­tu­ally as­sured to make him the fourth of four. And the three ad­min­is­tra­tions that have over­seen deficit re­duc­tions are the three Demo­cratic ones, in­clud­ing a small de­cline under Barack Obama. If you want to know whether a post-1976 pres­i­dent in­creased or re­duced the deficit, the only thing you need to know is his party.

The trend holds under a wide va­ri­ety of deficit statis­tics, too. If any­thing, a sim­pler anal­y­sis, us­ing just the topline num­bers, would make Repub­li­can pres­i­dents (es­pe­cially the Nixon/ford ad­min­is­tra­tion) look even worse. Mean­while, an even more so­phis­ti­cated ap­proach would change the rank­ing a bit — hurt­ing Bill Clin­ton and help­ing Obama — but not the par­ti­san pat­tern.

The caveat, of course, is that pres­i­dents must work with Congress. Some of the most im­por­tant deficitre­duc­tion pack­ages have been bi­par­ti­san. Ge­orge H.W. Bush, in par­tic­u­lar, de­serves credit for his courage to raise taxes. Some of the big­gest deficit-bal­loon­ing laws, like Ge­orge W. Bush’s Medi­care ex­pan­sion, have also been bi­par­ti­san. In fact, the Democrats’ big­gest re­cent deficit sins have come when they are in the mi­nor­ity, and have enough power only to make an al­ready ex­pen­sive Repub­li­can bill more so. The bud­get Trump signed last month is the lat­est ex­am­ple.

So it would cer­tainly be false to claim that Democrats are per­fect fis­cal stew­ards and that Repub­li­cans are all prof­li­gates. Yet it’s just as false to claim that the par­ties aren’t fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent. One party has now spent al­most 40 years cut­ting taxes and ex­pand­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grams with­out pay­ing for them. The other party has raised taxes and usu­ally been care­ful to pay for its new pro­grams.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing story — all the more so be­cause it does not fit pre­con­cep­tions. I un­der­stand why the story makes many peo­ple un­com­fort­able. It makes me a lit­tle un­com­fort­able. But it’s the truth.

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