I very much like Jonathan Chait’s piece yesterday about Mitt Romney’s new tax plan, which as Chait says makes it clear that Republicans will once again ignore — and explode — the budget deficit if they get the chance, just as they did in 1981 and 2001. If you don’t know what “dynamic scoring” is or why it’s a tip-off of GOP intentions, you should definitely read it. Actually, you should read it anyway; it’s excellent.

Just one nitpick. Chait says: “Since Ronald Reagan, budget deficits have been something Republicans talk about in fervent and often apocalyptic tones when there’s a Democrat in the White House” and that “If Romney wins, the agenda will increasingly come to focus on “growth,” and his party’s monomania with debt will be increasingly quaint.” I think that’s not quite it. Republicans during the Reagan years and, once the deficit returned, during the Bush years, were almost always quick to condemn deficits and to support gimmicks such as a Balanced Budget Amendment or a line item veto that they claimed would end it. Yes, one can find the occasional statement to the contrary, such as Dick Cheney’s famous line that “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter,” but in public it’s rare to hear it. Almost always, Republicans have one line about the deficit, whether it’s 1981 or 1993 or 2001 or 2009: it’s terribly horrible and will ruin the nation, and so what’s necessary is cutting taxes and talking a lot about cutting spending, but rarely specifying specific cuts, and always getting very offended if anyone suggests that they would cut Social Security or anything else that’s popular.

I’ll agree that there is a bit of difference in the emphasis they publicly place on deficit-cutting, but GOP policy proposals for any of this rarely change — because the stated goal of deficit reduction doesn’t seem to constrain them at all to adopt policies which would match federal revenues with federal outlays. They are, to be sure, willing to paper that over at times (thus the “magic asterisk” that Chait refers to, which made Paul Ryan’s budget appear to reduce the deficit even though in practice it probably would do the opposite; thus, going all the way back to 1981, David Stockman’s famously phony numbers). But since at least 1981, actual, real, deficit reduction has both always been on their agenda in the abstract, and never been on their agenda in reality.

[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.