Ed Kilgore discussed The 35-Year GOP Budget Dilemma. He claimed that the Republicans have been struggling with four ideological goals: “lowering top-end tax rates; boosting defense spending; going after New Deal/Great Society spending; and reducing budget deficits.” But I think this is giving Republican rhetoric rather too much credit. Just because Republicans claim that they care about budget deficits doesn’t mean that they do. And I just haven’t seen any evidence that Republicans have ever cared about the deficit — except as a rhetorical stick that they can use to call for the policies that they really want.
Let us return briefly to Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president in 1980. A big part of his pitch was that the national debt was out of control and he was going to get rid of it! Also: he was going to cut taxes, increase military spending, and get those welfare queens. So there are Kilgore’s four Republican ideological goals. Now, Reagan was lying about government debt. The truth is that we had been reducing debt (as a percentage of GDP) pretty much from the end of World War II onward. The debt went down under the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. And it has gone up during every Republican presidency since then — most of all under Reagan:
So Reagan did not balance the budget as he said he would. He did, however, manage to make the poorer classes pay a lot more for their New Deal programs. He did manage to greatly increase military spending (and wrongly get credit for destroying the Soviet Union). And most of all, he did manage to lower the top tax rate from 70% all the way down to 28%. Since him, Bush the Elder did raise the top tax rate to a whopping 31%. But he was widely criticized for it and is now used by Republicans as an example of why no one can ever raise taxes on the rich (even though that wasn’t why Bush lost his re-election bid). Bush the Younger also lowered taxes. None of these men cared much about the deficit.
For more recent history, we need to return to the heady days of the 2012 presidential election. Romney — like all Republicans when a Democrat is in the White House — claimed to care a great deal about the deficit and debt. That’s why he put out a budget. And that budget: gave massive tax cuts to the rich; increased military spending; cut benefits to the poorer classes; and made the budget deficit much, much worse. So clearly, Romney wasn’t interested in the deficit. And remember: he was supposedly a “reasonable Republican” — not a firebrand who would destroy the country.
For the last year, Jonathan Chait has been making arguments like, I Have Seen the Future of the Republican Party, and It Is George W Bush. He claims that the only way forward for the Republicans is for them to forget about all this nonsense about balanced budgets and just do what Bush did: lower taxes, make war, and most of all, stop worrying and love the debt. It isn’t exactly a shockingly insightful point. But it is one that most political writers don’t want to accept. It seems to be rude to accuse the Republicans of not really believing what they claim. But we have 35 years of history that shows that Republicans only care about the deficit when they aren’t in power. And that means they don’t ever care about deficits.
So I see Ed Kilgore and lower him an ideology. The Republicans have three ideological goals: lowering top-end tax rates; boosting defense spending; going after New Deal/Great Society spending; and…” nothing.