As a professional rhetorician (a-hem, hmmm, fiddle with elbow patches on jacket), I hate the rhetoric/reality distinction so often used on cable news and elsewhere. I believe that we only know reality through language and our language, in turns, reflects, deflects and selects the world in which we live. That said, we still need a way to talk about well-intentioned deception. To coin a phrase.
Thus, we come to the Republican party and the federal government's budget deficit. I want to believe the words of the House Speaker, their presidential candidates, their congressional leadership, their op-ed writers and so forth and so on when they say that they care about the federal budget deficit and that they wish to do something about it. I do believe that they believe it. I also believe that this is a classic case of clashing goods.
Republicans wish to reduce the federal deficit. They wish to lower taxes on all Americans, but particularly on the assets held by wealthier Americans--those are the folks that make jobs through investments. They understand their responsibilities to the least among us and they wish to provide a social safety net. As do all political organizations, the Republican Party also wishes to gain and hold power. Republicans are well-aware that Americans love entitlement programs.
These are laudable goals. They are social goods and, in fact, many Democrats would agree with each one of these goals. In theory. But these goals inevitably come into conflict. Higher entitlement spending means higher deficits. Lower taxes means less federal revenue. To be at all meaningful, budget cuts will likely have to include entitlements. Raising taxes or cutting spending puts your political future at risk. You cannot have all of these goods at the same time.
When forced to choose, Republicans will inevitably abandon deficit reduction. This wasn't always true and it took some time for it to become true. President Reagan's initial tax cuts ballooned the deficit, but, with much assistance from Democrats, he passed a series of tax increases that reduced the deficit, a process that culminated under his successor, George H. W. Bush. He cut a tax and spending deal with majority Democratic support--conservatives denounced and abandoned him. The deficit declined, but Bush faced first a primary challenge and then lost his bid for reelection. Clinton, then, bit the bullet and raised taxes with no Republican help. With some help from Republicans early in his second term, he passed more spending cuts. The budget produced a surplus and we began paying down the national debt.
Since the election of George W. Bush, however, the Republican Party has completed its journey and abandoned any commitment to deficit reduction. Two big tax cuts, two wars, a new enetitlement benefit, none of which was paid for. The budget went from a surplus to a deficit in short order.
Once President Obama took office, Rs immediately blamed him for the deficit. Yet they have had numerous opportunities to lower the deficit and have failed to take a single one. Sure, most of those moments would have involved compromises, deals, trades. There are competing goods--they needed to choose between deficit reduction and higher taxes or lower Medicare spending, for instance. But there have been numerous moments over the past two years when they could have cut a deal with Obama. In fact, he would have cut a deal again over the past couple of weeks.
But each time, Republicans dropped deficit reduction. They rejected tax increases. They demanded entitlement cuts, but refused to specify them. Budget plans, like that of Paul Ryan, were passed that included more massive tax increases and no specified spending cuts. Even voucher proposals for entitlements hide the cuts--they can pretend they're just offering the voucher and gradually lower the amount. They can then say, "Well, it's not our fault that the insurance costs more." Each time, they shy away from actual deficit reduction.
The plain fact of the matter is that liberals care far less about this--most believe that we need big spending now to goose the economy and deficit reduction later, once the economy has rebounded and we can get a sense of what the budget looks like with "normal" tax receipts. In fact, if that advice had been followed on the national, state, and local level, we'd probably be in much better shape now. But when the economy did boom, it was the Democratic Party that balanced the budget.
All I'm saying is this: if you truly care about deficit reduction, you need to understand the Republican Party leadership does not. They choose other priorities every single time, they've done so for a while, and they did so again with the fiscal cliff (that deal will LIFT the budget deficit). So, if you truly care, you need to change the Republican Party leadership or you need another political vehicle. These guys--and I mean guys--will choose tax cuts and entitlements and political power over deficit reduction Every. Single. Time. They'll talk the talk from Janesville to Miami. But they will not walk the walk.