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Republicans: Suddenly We Care About the Deficit Again

How convenient.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) speaks to reporters following the Senate Republican policy luncheon which both President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence attended on March 10, 2020 in Washington, DC. He is joined by Senators (from left to right) Republican Conference Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY), Majority Whip John Thune (R-SD), and Vice Chairman of the Senate Republican Conference Joni Ernst (R-IA). (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

It’s always worth recalling what a principled and wholly uncynical bunch congressional Republicans are:

Republicans are preparing to reembrace their inner deficit hawks after greenlighting big spending bills under President Trump.

GOP senators say they expect to refocus on curbing the nation’s debt and reforming entitlement programs starting in 2021, as the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the debt has surpassed the size of the American economy.

“I think that’s kind of getting back to our DNA. … I think spending, entitlement reform, growth and the economy are all things that we’re going to have to be focused on next year, and, yeah, I would expect you’ll hear a lot more about that,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.

“That’s just zombie Reaganism!” cry the usual suspects, who are starting to sound a bit undead themselves. But it isn’t like responsible budgeting is pure political deadweight. The Atlantic‘s Elaine Godfrey recently went in search of suburban Republican women who flipped for Joe Biden and found them “by and large, iffy on Medicare for All, concerned about the national debt, and worried about the price tag of free public college.” These are what I like to call the checkbook voters, those who, rightly or wrongly, view their own monthly payments as a key to understanding the federal budgeting process. Such a mindset instills frugality, a sense that government ought to be as careful taxing and spending as a family listing expenses, lest their children end up treading red ink. Trump lost some of these voters and with them the election.

It’s worth remembering, too, that the last time Republicans flipped both houses of Congress, it was on a platform of reining in the big-government excesses of a Democratic president. Mitch McConnell knows this, which is why he’s once again about to turn every attempt to raise the debt ceiling into a reenactment of the Somme. Politics isn’t the problem here; the GOP has that down. It’s how gallingly, nakedly hypocritical the entire charade has become. Republicans aren’t even trying to hide that they only care about deficits under Democratic presidents. Consider Senator Lindsey Graham, who tells The Hill he’s very worried about the snowballing national debt. This is the same Lindsey Graham who fought like a wolverine for every defense dollar he could muster under Trump and who declared Trump’s 2017 budget “dead on arrival” because it cut foreign aid.

And that’s just it. Republicans for two years under Trump controlled both houses of Congress amid a cracking economy. If they were going to reduce spending, this was the time to do it, sensible even by Keynesian standards. Instead they chose to cut taxes, keep their paws off of entitlements, and lavish the Pentagon. The first was certainly arguable, since America’s corporate tax regime did need a revamp and there’s evidence the tax cuts helped juice the economy. The second was at least understandable, since the last president to attempt Social Security reform was George W. Bush back in 2005, and it blew up in his face. The third was unconscionable, a Jacksonian vanity project by President Trump, a reallocation of resources to an already-booming sector at a time when we should have been drawing down our deployments overseas.

Mitch McConnell’s Republicans nodded along with all of this. It’s only now, as “closing” signs appear in darkened restaurant windows, that they’re suddenly worried about the deficit. “To be honest with you, you’ve seen the last of Republicans passing giant packages,” says Senator Kevin Cramer. That is, until the next GOP president comes along, concerns are raised about our military readiness in the Ross Ice Shelf, and the national debt is twice as humongous as it is today.

about the author

Matt Purple is a senior editor at The American Conservative.

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