If we’ve learned anything about the Republican style of governance in the last three decades, it’s this: The GOP runs up enormous deficits when a Republican is in the White House, then uses those same deficits as a means to shut down government when a Democrat is in the White House. Once Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or Jon Huntsman takes up residence in the Oval Office in 2013, you can bet it won’t be long before the deficit mania vanishes and the GOP returns to its previous philosophy so eloquently expressed by Vice President Dick Cheney in 2002: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
Deficits may not matter all that much in the long-term financial sense of things, but they make a nice sharp weapon for slashing holes in the social safety net beneath middle-class Americans when a Democrat is president. You’ll remember that it was the GOP demand for $270 billion in cuts to Medicare funding that precipitated the Newt Gingrich-led shutdown of government in 1995. Now we have another Democrat in the White House and the Republicans’ strategy is even more ambitious. Give us everything we want this time, they say (the usual basket of cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and a host of government services large and small) without any compromise whatsoever on our side (make the Bush tax cuts permanent, leave intact every tax subsidy and loophole under the sun for oil companies, hedge fund CEOs, and corporations) or we’ll default on America’s debt. Such a default would lower the country’s credit rating, freeze bond markets, make borrowing difficult or impossible, and jack up interest rates on all existing debt public and private, all in the midst of an ongoing recession. (Barely getting by in this economy while paying off a home equity loan at 3.9% interest? Try it at 14.9%.)
All in a day’s work for the party that turned a $230 billion government budget surplus in 2000 into a $438 billion deficit in 2008, while leaving an economy in ruins on January 20, 2009. But let’s not quibble over a few lost billions. All President Obama has to do now is agree to the GOP’s demands in every particular, and heck, maybe this economy won’t accidentally burn to the ground or anything, if you know what we mean. Failure to agree to these terms reveals that Obama simply “isn’t serious” about deficit reduction, in the words of House GOP leader John Boehner.
Well, thank goodness the “serious” people have finally arrived on the scene. Who doesn’t remember the good old days of 2000-2008 when these very same “serious” people were voting to raise the US debt ceiling seven different times under President Bush and sending massive C-130 cargo planes packed to the rafters with pallets of newly printed $100 bills to Iraq, then abandoning those pallets on Baghdad street corners, never to be seen again? Man, those serious people knew how to party.
But now it’s time for those serious people to get serious about government spending and they’ve got the political courage to spread the pain around. Of course, they don’t want to spread it too far. You can go nuts with that kind of thing. Hedge fund investors will continue to pay 15% federal tax on their income, while cable TV installers and office managers pay 28% on theirs. The US military budget, which exceeds the military budgets of all other nations on earth combined, is untouchable. Even the farm subsidies that our proud western and southern states are so dependent upon are off limits. (Paying farmers not to grow anything is evidently an unimpeachable national tradition.)
So instead let’s take an ax to Medicare, a healthcare insurance program that runs much more cost-efficiently than its counterparts in the private sector. And Social Security, a retirement program that Americans pay into all their working lives. (You’ll notice I haven’t yet used the word “entitlements.” These are insurance and retirement programs that Americans pay for. They are no more entitlements than the life insurance payout my family will receive when I die, based on the life insurance premium I pay every year.)
If only President Obama would get serious. And by serious I don’t mean the quaint gestures he’s made up til now, like draconian cuts in government services across the board, plus means testing for Medicare recipients and an eligibility rollback for Social Security to age 67. (In this robust economy, senior citizens have little trouble finding gainful employment well into their 60s.) These compromises, which have already stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Democratic rank and file, and have lowered Obama’s poll ratings among liberals, are such small change. It’s time to thing big!
After all, look at everything House GOP leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor have already offered. They’ve offered to not push the world economy off a cliff. What more does the president want?