For decades, Republicans have bragged that they are the party of “fiscal responsibility.” Anyone with the ability to understand basic math, and read charts, knows that is not true.
Reagan intentionally drove up the deficit in an attempt to starve social programs. Bush gave tax breaks to the rich and drove up the deficit more. And Trump and the GOP carried out the biggest transfer of wealth to the already wealthy in the history of the country.
And every time, it was the Democrats who actually wound up getting the deficits under control and getting the budgets in line. In fact, under Bill Clinton, we actually had budget surpluses for the first time in decades.
Think I’m exaggerating? Let’s look at some graphs.
The annual deficits by president
Pretty simple: red bars are Republican budgets, blue bars are Democrat ones. Reagan drives up the deficit; Clinton lowers it. Bush had the Iraq war, of course, but also his own set of tax cuts – and then the Great Recession hits.
Obama takes office against that Great Recession, but eventually gets the deficits lower and lower. He handed Trump an economy that was still growing robustly. With good management, Trump could have reaped the benefits of that economy by lowering the deficit.
Instead, he and the GOP decided to explode the deficits in order to give money to their donors, both individuals and corporations. As a result, the Trump deficits are going to surpass the ones during the Great Recession – and that’s not even taking into account the impact of the pandemic.
Measured against GDP
The raw amount of the deficit is the number that gets talked about the most; but the ratio of the deficit to the country’s gross domestic product is perhaps even more important. It’s one thing to have high deficits when the economy is booming; it’s another to have those same deficits when the economy is shrinking. So, let’s put that graph up as well.
Many economists theorize that a deficit at or under 4% of GDP is acceptable as a part of the national economy. Of course, most fiscal conservatives would prefer a completely balanced budget, with no deficit. Why they would be Republicans in light of these numbers is a question for another day.
Keynesian economics vs deficits
Let’s be clear: I am a Keynesian when it comes to government spending. In other words, when the economy is shrinking and recession is happening, the federal government should step in to take up the slack and keep society from collapsing. So, in the midst of a pandemic and rampant unemployment, putting money in people’s pockets and food on their tables is something the federal government should do.
BUT – that doesn’t mean that you keep doing that when the economy recovers. As people get back on their feet, you should see a reduction in the need for massive deficit spending.
Fixing the economy – again
Assuming Joe Biden is elected in November, one of his tasks is going to be to get our economy and our federal budget back to an equitable basis. He will need to reverse the massive tax cuts for the super-wealthy. He will need to make sure the spending is going to help the most people, and not just the corporate insiders and their DC lobbyists.
And, once the economy recovers from the pandemic, he’s going to have to deal with the Trump deficits. Just like every Democratic president for the last fifty years, he is going to have to clean up the fiscal mess left behind by the Republicans.
So the next time someone tries to tell you that the GOP is the “adult in the room” when it comes to fiscal restraint, point out the apparently the GOP adult in the room was drunk as a sailor on shore leave when it came to spending more than they had, and the Dems were the ones who got the drunk GOP into bed then proceeded to clean up the mess. Let’s hope we can get enough Dems in Washington to do it again.