Ever since the patron saint of fiscal conservatism Ronald Reagan and his minion George H. W. Bush tripled the national debt, from $1 trillion to $3 trillion, the GOP has made intellectual flexibility a hallmark of its rhetoric on the subject. A zen-like serenity about the deficit and the debt settles over the party whenever a Republican occupies the White House, to be instantly replaced with hysteria the instant a Democrat is inaugurated.
"Reagan proved deficits don't matter," Dick Cheney asserted as Bush II was presiding over the largest increase in the Federal debt in history (another $5 trillion, give or take a few hundred billion). Amazing what a difference an election makes.
But the point is not just to draw some innocent pleasure from Republican hypocrisy: the point is that how we got to this juncture tells us what policies are fiscally sustainable, and what ones aren't. The GOP has been remarkably effective in advancing the narrative that the debt is the product of "big spending" Democratic programs; therefore big-spending Democratic programs (Medicare, Social Security, health care) and for that matter little-spending Democratic programs (IRS enforcement, public radio, family planning services, clean air regulation) are what must be cut.
Almost no one seems to be able to remember that Bill Clinton's policies of modest spending restraints; adjustments to Social Security benefits; modest increases in the top marginal tax rates; and elimination of the regressive cap on income subject to the Medicare tax gave us the first budget surpluses in decades, and placed the country on a path to pay off the entire debt by 2015.
At the same time, Congress adopted policies requiring that any measures which increased the deficit had to be offset by policies that made up for that loss, either by cutting spending elsewhere or by raising revenues. During the Clinton Administration the national debt increased by a grand total of $0.07 trillion.
W's $2 trillion in tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest, plus $2 trillion in "off-budget" expenses for a couple of wars, plus an unfunded prescription-drug add-on to Medicare, plus a $700 billion Wall Street bailout, threw any remaining semblance of fiscal responsibility out the window:
As did the newly elected Republican House of Representatives this year, which — concluding that it was simpler merely to suspend the laws of physics than to politically reconcile their screaming rhetorical denunciations of the debt with their single-minded determination to reduce tax rates on the rich — simply declared that tax cuts no longer need to be offset by any spending cuts or revenue increases elsewhere in the budget.
As has been noted by many, Paul Ryan's highly serious intellectually hefty GOP budget plan to solve the nation-threatening catastrophic disaster of the debt consists mostly of adding $4 trillion more to the national debt, in the form of new tax cuts for the wealthiest (along with eliminating Medicare — apparently not a violation of the GOP's Pledge to America last fall, since that only said they were against reducing Medicare).
Meanwhile, in our great Commonwealth of Virginia, it turns out that not only are we under the beneficent care of the Tax Fairy but the Road Fairy as well: billions in new road construction, advocated mostly by the development industry, have our Republican governor's enthusiastic support, even as he slashes away at health care for children and university funding in the name of fiscal rectitude and necessity.
Like terrorists impatient for an outrage they can blame on the government who set off a bomb in a marketplace themselves, the GOP — having been frustrated by the Democrats' refusal for decades to conform to their bogeyman caricatures of them — have at last resorted to creating the bogeyman themselves. It says much of the single-minded decades-long efforts of GOP strategists to spin a mythological narrative that they can dress this Debt Monster of their own making in Democratic clothes, and get away with it.