Why Some “Straight” Journalists Are Unvarnished Deficit Scolds

Kevin Drum is absolutely right in his response to Lori Montgomery’s WaPo story today about budget negotiations:

There’s nothing wrong with talking about the federal deficit in a story about the budget. But this entire story is framed around a sense of dismay that Congress has “abandoned” its debt-reduction goals. This is done with no mention of the fact that Congress has already slashed the 10-year deficit by nearly $4 trillion over the past couple of years. No mention that we’ve been engaged in this frenzy of deficit cutting despite the fact that the economy is still fragile, which means that reducing the deficit is almost certainly a terrible idea. No mention that deficit cutting of any size in the wake of recession is unprecedented in recent history.

Basically, there are two problems with Montgomery’s piece. First, that she ignores previous deficit-cutting from this and previous Congresses; second, that he takes the position that deficit-cutting is unambiguously a good thing, now and always.

I’ll add one thing: she uses “debt” and “deficit” in ways that obscure what’s going on. So, for example, she begins by saying the prospective deal would “not significantly reduce the debt.” Well, yes; that’s not going to happen unless the government runs surpluses. While there are some who believe that would be a good idea, most economists, including many sincere deficit hawks (who do want both short and long-term deficits slashed), would not want the debt reduced next year.

Matt Yglesias is on this too, and he’s right also: “Journalists who would never think of openly cheerleading for more people to get government-subsidized health insurance or for oil companies to secure a freer hand in drilling, regard the goodness of deficit reduction as a kind of non-ideological given.”

Yglesias asks why that’s the case. My guess? Reagan. Because Ronald Reagan’s policies produced huge deficits, and his influence pushed future Republicans to adopt policies which produced huge deficits, the Democratic Party shifted to a mostly fiscally conservative party. And yet because Reagan’s particular political genius lie in believing what he wanted to believe regardless of what was going on, under Reagan conservatives became even more rhetorically committed to balanced budgets and deficit obsession.

Which leaves both parties rhetorically, at least, committed to hating deficits and debt. And the norm for journalists is that if both parties support something, then it’s okay to treat it as an unquestioned and unquestionable good thing.

Of course, there are plenty of liberals who don’t always support balanced budgets, and a handful of conservatives who are honest about the effects of their policies. But on both sides, the bulk of the official messaging assumes that deficit reduction is always a good thing.

On the other hand, it’s possible that reporter love of deficit reduction precedes the partisan (rhetorical) consensus on deficit reduction, in which case it’s possible that one reason the parties adopted that stance is because they believed it would play better in the press. (I suppose I should note here, too, FDR’s 1932 anti-deficit campaign rhetoric). So perhaps a more careful examination of this is in order.

[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.