Bipartisan Indifference on the National Debt
There was an interesting (or at least telling) exchange the other day on Fox News between Greg Gutfeld and liberal commentator, Richard Fowler. It came during a panel discussion on The Five about President Trump's first year in office. After Gutfeld highlighted some positives, Fowler took a more critical stance, pointing out that the new GOP tax plan is going to add an estimated $1.5 trillion in deficit spending, and that Trump's infrastructure plans will add more.
"I love it when liberals start talking about debt," said a sarcastic Gutfeld, referencing the $9 trillion that was added during the Obama era (a roughly 70% increase from the Bush years). "You know, that's amazing."
"Republicans used to talk about debt," Fowler jabbed back. "And then all of a sudden, that went away."
"We learned from you," replied Gutfeld (referring to liberals in general). "We learned that debt doesn't matter."
And that was the end of the debt discussion. The panel moved on.
Purely from a rhetorical perspective, both men were right. The Democratic party hasn't demonstrated any real concern over the national debt since the Bill Clinton era, and even a few years of budget surpluses back then (with the help of Republicans) didn't do much to slow down its growth. And anyone who remembers Obama's budget proposals over the years knows that if he had gotten his way, the country would have been buried in trillions more.
To Fowler's point, fiscal restraint was a big part of the Republican and conservative platforms when Obama was in office. It's what fueled the Tea Party movement, and led to the GOP unexpectedly re-taking the House in the 2010 midterm. Paul Ryan went out on a ledge multiple times to produce entitlement reform bills, some of which made it through the House. Efforts from budget hardliners within the Republican party led to a sequestration and even a government shutdown. Conservative commentators on talk-radio and cable news were in absolute hysterics over the growth of Obama's debt, never missing an opportunity to point out how the president was mortgaging the futures of our children and grandchildren.
Yet, now that we have a Republican president back in the White House, what are we hearing from the Right in regard to the national debt? Whataboutism ...and not much else.
Adding trillions to the debt is now commonly seen as okay, in large part because the Left has been effective in selling much of the country on the notion that doing so comes without repercussions. But national indifference isn't the biggest problem here. Liberals and the media have also created the conventional wisdom that pretty much any notable reduction in government spending (aside from on the military of course) will lead to an economic and societal catastrophe in which children will starve by the millions and old people will be tossed out into the streets.
Donald Trump understood this when he was running for president. In sharp contrast with his primary opponents, he borrowed a lot of progressive campaign rhetoric from the Left, promising universal healthcare and vowing not to reform our entitlement programs — the leading drivers of our debt. With the help of some opportunist media-conservatives, Trump substituted economic populism for economic conservatism. He went on to win the Republican nomination and the presidency, and now the will of the American Right to deal with our debt problem is almost nonexistent...despite the fact that we now owe over $20 trillion.
For some perspective, that translates to $63,000 for each U.S. citizen and over $170,000 per tax payer.
You almost get the sense that a lot of Republicans are happy to have the political burden of fiscal conservatism lifted off their shoulders. If they don't have to talk about meaningful spending cuts, the Democrats are left with one less issue in their arsenal with which to beat them over the heads with.
Sure, the Republicans have proven that they still know how to cut taxes. Letting people keep more of their own money is a good thing. But the tax bill (and any economic growth that may come from it) isn't going to put a dent in our national debt. This problem isn't with revenue. It's with spending.
The Republican party — like the Democrats and most of the country — now seems content with just letting future generations suffer the dire consequences of our excesses. It's disgraceful and immoral, but in a political era fueled by tribalism and perpetual partisan outrage (rather than sound principles), it's the kind of thing we should expect.
What's particularly disheartening about this is that the GOP has blown an extraordinary opportunity this year by not addressing the debt. They have the White House and hold majorities in both branches of Congress. As far as political capital, President Trump is going to suffer from low approval ratings no matter what he does on policy (his personal conduct continues to assure that), yet his loyal base (probably a third of the electorate) will support him regardless of what he does. He has abandoned plenty of his campaign rhetoric since taking office. He could do it again for the sake of the country, this time on the debt, and lose hardly any backing.
But this isn't going to happen, not without a cultural sea-change in how Americans view this issue. And that can only come from either bold, honest leadership (the kind you're not going to find on cable news), or a legitimate fiscal catastrophe that leaves our country in ruin and without choice.
It would be nice to try and avoid the latter.
There are still a few conservative voices out there who are sounding the alarm on this issue. Ricochet.com's Jon Gabriel is one of them. He writes fairly regular pieces on the topic. I'll close out this column by presenting a chart Gabriel created that accurately illustrates the situation we're in, and puts it in some valuable perspective. The chart's a little out of date (ending with Obama's tenure), but the current trajectory is essentially the same, and only stands to worsen with the predicted growth of entitlement costs.
Sleep well, America.