Inheriting Bush's Smoke and Mirrors

Steve Benen came across an interesting snippet in a Politico piece yesterday.

John Cornyn and GWBRepublicans on Capitol Hill think they've finally found Barack Obama's Achilles' heel: rising public concern about government spending and the federal deficit. [...]

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told POLITICO that GOP candidates in 2010 will almost certainly use the deficit to argue that Democrats own a Washington mess.

"This was not an inherited situation. This was a matter entirely of this administration's and this Democratic leadership's making," Cornyn said.

"Now, it's my understanding that 'an inherited situation' refers to 'situations' that are 'inherited,'" Benen writes. "In the context of presidential administrations, it refers to problems that an outgoing president leaves for his or her successor."

So if one president who, for the sake of argument, we'll call "Beorge Gush" hands off an economy in ruins, a financial system in flames, and record deficits to a following president who we'll call "Orack Bobama," then Bobama would be said to be inheriting these problems from Gush. Gush doesn't need to actually die and write in his will, "To Bobama, I bequeath everything I screwed up." It's a simple metaphor. To say the Orack didn't inherit an economy in a state that experts refer to as "royally screwed" from Beorge is just a little shy of brutally honest.

In fact, if Republicans plan to blame the economy and, specifically, the deficit on a non-hypothetical president named Obama, they've got a bit of a problem. Reality doesn't agree with them. "The story of today’s deficits starts in January 2001, as President Bill Clinton was leaving office," reported David Leonhardt in the New York Times yesterday. "The Congressional Budget Office estimated then that the government would run an average annual surplus of more than $800 billion a year from 2009 to 2012. Today, the government is expected to run a $1.2 trillion annual deficit in those years."

Leonhardt lists four factors that account for the present deficit -- a $2 trillion difference from the surplus Clinton bequeathed to Bush. 37% can be attributed to the business cycle and the resulting lost tax revenue from two recessions. 33% comes from legislation -- like Medicare Part D -- signed by Bush. 20% is accounted for by Bush spending that Obama continued -- examples being two wars, the Wall Street Bailout, and a portion of Bush's tax cuts.

"About 7 percent comes from the stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed in February," Leonhardt tells us. "And only 3 percent comes from Mr. Obama’s agenda on health care, education, energy and other areas. If the analysis is extended further into the future, well beyond 2012, the Obama agenda accounts for only a slightly higher share of the projected deficits."

Yet Republicans plan to turn a little more than 10% into 100%. Mostly because honesty isn't extremely important to them and they believe you're really stupid.

Meanwhile, President Obama has a plan to reduce, although not by any stretch eliminate, the deficit.

[New York Times:]

Mr. Obama announced he was sending legislation to Congress to restore the 1990s-era "pay as you go" law, known as Paygo. The law, in effect from 1990 to 2002, required that tax cuts or new entitlement spending -- like the health care overhaul that Mr. Obama hopes will be a signature domestic achievement -- be paid for through budget cuts or tax increases.

Republicans, having recently become deficit hawks, responded with a big round of applause, right?


"President Obama and Congressional Democrats telling Americans they are committed to budget discipline is like Charles Ponzi telling people to trust him with their money," the Republican National Committee responded in a press release. Of course, that's not actually an argument for or against Paygo, so much as it is a one-liner. Nothing says you take the economy seriously so much as getting your writing staff to whip up a snappy comeback. They're confusing debate with a game of "the dozens" -- "Oh yeah? Well yo' mamma so ugly..."

See, Republicans don't actually like Paygo because they're pretty much addicted to tax cuts. And, as Bush demonstrated so well, Republicans love to pretend that their tax cuts will pay for themselves. This never works, but who cares? Tax cuts get people to vote for you and that's all that counts. The theory -- now thoroughly debunked -- is that tax cuts result in increased tax revenues. It hasn't really worked out that way. If you doubt that, I give you a $1.2 trillion deficit to ponder.

If Congress were to institute "pay as you go" accounting for tax cuts, Republicans would find tax cuts much harder to pull off. You wouldn't be able to pretend they'd pay for themselves anymore, you'd have to make cuts in programs or somehow dig up new revenue to pay for them. Following Republican reasoning, this shouldn't be a big problem; since tax cuts supposedly pay for themselves, any cuts in other spending would obviously be temporary.

But Republicans don't believe their own rhetoric now -- or, if they do, it's without a lot of conviction and faith. They've seen their "grow your way out of deficits" economic theory belly flop. The only real reason to push for tax cuts now is to buy votes and pay off big-money donors. If you're giving with one hand, while taking away with the other, that's just not going to work. To put it plainly, Obama wants to take their smoke and mirrors away.

And tax cuts are all they really have left. Without them, all they have is empty criticism -- which is why Obama's sliver of responsibility for the deficit becomes total responsibility for the deficit.

If you've got nothing to offer, then you just make stuff up.


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