In this New Yorker chronicle of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s role in the various budget crises in Washington over the last two years, Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, makes an interesting observation:
This is a very different Republican Party than the one I got elected into. It’s much more domestically focused, much more fiscally responsible, much less concerned about America’s position in the world or about defending the country. It almost takes for granted the security that we have now. It’s not a group shaped by 9/11. Their 9/11 is the fiscal crisis, the long-term deficit [emphasis mine].
There are two senses in which Cole’s observation is apt (neither of them in the way he intended, exactly).
The first is that of hysterical overreaction.
After the September 11 attacks, carried out by 19 men with box-cutters, and supported by an occult international financial network, Americans were warned of an existential threat to our way of life and our very physical persons. To meet this threat, America commenced two land invasions, followed by a war of record-breaking length in Afghanistan and a calamitous occupation of Iraq; established a ghastly new domestic cabinet agency; and defenestrated longstanding prohibitions on torture. These wars cost the lives of 7,000 American servicemen and -women, plus many tens of thousands more Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani civilians.
The overreaction to the “fiscal crisis,” as Rep. Cole calls it, stems from this notion of singularity—one big Fiscal Crisis, rather than a cluster of fiscal problems. The $1 trillion-plus annual deficits that the federal government ran during Obama’s first term were the direct consequence of the financial crisis of 2008 and of the recession that began in December 2007. If Sen. John McCain had been elected in ’08, he would have dealt with the same $1.3 trillion budget deficit that Obama did. These slowly shrinking deficits are linked, in the crisismonger’s mind, to the entitlement-driven debt projected in “extended fiscal alternative scenarios” gamed out by budget wonks. Taken together, short-term deficits and long-term debt, and the multifarious causes of each, add up to one simple fable of moral incontinence.
Cole’s analogy works for the cynic as well as the moralist.
The September 11 attacks furnished neoconservatives with what they saw as justification for a final reckoning with Saddam Hussein, which they’d been itching for throughout the Clinton years. The Fiscal Crisis, in the same way, does the heavy lifting for policies that dramatically alter the nature of federally financed social insurance—in the case of Medicare premium support, by partially privatizing it; in the case of Medicaid, by elevating the role of state governments. These are reform ideas that, like those long-gestating plans for dealing with Iraq, antedate the Fiscal Crisis.
Don’t get me wrong. I think these are arguments worth having. I’m more committed to the preservation of the welfare state more than the average conservative might be, but I’m not wed to any particular composition of that welfare state.
What I’d like to see is any proponent of the Ryan budget—let’s not pick on the Tea Party alone—pretend that it’s, say, the late 1990s, when the idea of a Medicare voucher, or “premium support, was first proposed—when there were annual surpluses “as far as the eye could see.” If the idea had merit then, conservatives needn’t resort to an all-encompassing Fiscal Crisis to sell it today.
What we’re getting, instead, is the folly of the Balanced Budget Amendment and predictions of Greek-like fiscal collapse.
We’re getting the fiscal policy equivalent of the “existential threat” of terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.