Fiscal Conservatism

FISCAL CONSERVATISM…. David M. Walker, the comptroller general who left office last year, recently reflected on George W. Bush*. “There’s no question in my view that Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible president in the history of the republic,” Walker said.

And if there’s one aspect of this that was consistent throughout Bush’s two terms, it’s that Republican lawmakers supported Bush’s fiscally irresponsibility every step of the way. It’s why I share Andrew Sullivan’s frustration.

Charlie Cook and others are predicting a sea-change in public mood, with support for the GOP rising because of deficits. This strikes me as an amazing thing. It makes Charlie Brown, the football and Lucy look like the model of intelligent interaction. If you believe in fiscal conservatism, the last place on earth you should look for salvation is the GOP. They have single-handedly destroyed America’s finances since the 1980s, with the sole exception of George H W Bush, who was rejected by his own party precisely because of his fiscal sobriety.

The current debt is overwhelmingly inherited by Obama, and it would have been nuts to enter office in the downdraft of the sharp recession and set about cutting spending. Bush had eight years to restrain it and he didn’t. He let it rip.

Recent history suggests voters’ concerns for deficits are, at best, superficial. A poll will show that Americans overwhelmingly support deficit reduction at the conceptual level, but the same poll will show the same respondents rejecting various proposals to improve the budget outlook.

But the conventional wisdom is that the public really is concerned this time, and it’s Democrats who’ll feel the brunt of the discontent. I realize that perceptions matter more than reality on issues like these, but I still feel compelled to at least acknowledge how ridiculous this is.

During their reign, Republicans took an annual surplus of a quarter of a trillion dollars and, in just eight years, turned it into a $1.2 trillion deficit. The GOP added $5 trillion to the national debt, and inexplicably put two tax cuts, two wars, Medicare Part D, and No Child Left Behind on the national charge card, left for some future generation to worry about.

If fiscal responsibility is the new chief concern of voters, they literally couldn’t find a less qualified, less credible bunch than the congressional Republican caucus.

But wait, our conservative friends remind us, that was the recent past. What about the ongoing deficit problems on the Dems’ watch? The answer isn’t complicated. As Michael Ettlinger and Michael Linden recently explained: “The policies of the Bush administration, which included tax cuts during a time of war and a floundering economy, are clearly the primary source of the current deficits.”

And what of those recent reports about deficit projections rising from $7 trillion to $9 trillion? The bottom line, Kevin Drum recently noted, is simple: “[P]roperly accounted for, the deficit actually goes down when you compare Obama’s budget proposals to current policy, not up.”

If Americans want to prioritize deficit reduction, fine. But they should at least recognize who has credibility on the issue, and who doesn’t.

* corrected: Walker was appointed by Clinton in 1998, and served throughout Bush’s presidency. Bush was not, however, Walker’s boss as my post originally indicated.