Pundits and Deficits

Jamelle Bouie makes an interesting point:

I have a theory for why Douthat—and many other pundits, center-right or otherwise—ignore this clear record of responsible budget action from liberals.

They approach politics like every other voter. Pundits are supposed to know more than the rest of us, but like everyone, they develop heuristics and short-cuts to help them understand the world. For many pundits, one such short-cut is that Democrats—and especially liberals—support more spending and thus higher deficits. In the absence of a challenge, pundits will default to this assumption, and it takes a lot to shake their perceptions.

Let’s think that through on the particular issue of why many pundits ignore the plain fact that the parties flipped on deficits in more or less the years 1978-1982, which you may notice is thirty years ago…pundits may seem to last forever, but in fact that means that for most pundits, they’ve never blogged or op-edized or appeared on Fox News when Republicans were actually the party of smaller deficits.

So how come?

Begin with Jamelle’s point: most of the guilty pundits here aren’t actual budget experts.So they’re adopting their views from elsewhere. And the default, reasonably accurate view for many years leading up to the 1978-1982 flip was that Republicans (and perhaps conservatives in general) were for balanced budgets, while Democrats were not.

So what happened when the parties flipped?

1. Republicans didn’t flip their rhetoric at all. Ronald Reagan’s particular political genius had to do with believing things that were not so, and he never stopped believing in balanced budgets, even while his policies exploded the deficit (he also fully believed in not negotiating with terrorists even while paying off Iran to release hostages, and fully believed in the evil of Communism even while finding Gorbachev a totally worthwhile partner). After Reagan…well, in some ways Republicans have never been over Ronald Reagan, so there’s some of just adopting style of separating rhetoric and reality. But eventually that becomes the war on budgeting, in which they keep the rhetoric but just apply it to a different problem. Leading for example to “balanced budget amendments” that wouldn’t actually balance the budget but would cut spending.

2. On the Dem side, the problem is that their core positions is slightly complicated. Not very, to be sure, but Keynsianism means that Democrats do not favor totally balanced budgets at all times, which makes it harder to see that overall they have become quite concerned about budget deficits.

3. And then there’s the particular circumstances of 2009: mainly because of the recession and existing policy, the deficit is very high during the Obama years. It has virtually nothing to do with Obama policy; indeed, the deficit had already spiked up in FY 2009, which we were deep into before he was even sworn in to office. But it’s certainly muddied the situation quite a bit — in 1993 the deficit was already falling when Bill Clinton took office so Democratic policies finished the job, but in 2009 that was hardly the case.

I should mention someplace here that the flip on deficits is only about the basic party position; there certainly are some Republicans (Tom Coburn for example) who are anti-deficit, and some Democrats who reject the part about running balanced or surplus budgets during good times to offset deficits during recessions.

But the overall pattern is clear, and very much reflected in what the parties have done in office since the late Carter and early Reagan years. And maybe in another thirty years or so most pundits will have figured it out.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.