Over many decades, the Democratic party earned a reputation among voters for backing higher government spending and government programs over private-sector initiatives. Americans thus came to see the party as largely uninterested in fiscal restraint, especially the kind of restraint that would help keep taxes from rising. In contrast, Republicans have built their brand around fiscal conservatism—holding the line on taxes, spending, deficits, and debt.
But in recent years, Democratic politicians and their apologists have tried to peddle the notion that historical perceptions about the parties regarding fiscal matters are erroneous. According to the narrative now promoted by most party activists and often repeated in the mainstream press, despite perceptions, it’s actually the Democrats who are now the party of fiscal conservatism, because they’re willing to raise taxes. Republicans, it is contended, are now fiscally reckless on account of their taxophobia.
All of this depends on a definition of fiscal conservatism not shared by voters. To Democratic apologists, it is fiscally conservative to expand government, so long it’s paid for by tax increases. Unfortunately for them, the electorate does not see it that way. They want their elected leaders to be conservative in using their tax dollars, and conservative in asking for them too.
Still, the apologists for “fiscal conservatism, Democratic-style” press on. To make their case, they like to point to the Clinton presidency. During those years, the federal budget moved steadily from a position of large deficits toward one of balance and then, for the first time in decades, to small surpluses. Of course, when Democrats fondly cite the 1990s, they somehow conveniently forget to mention that, two years into the Clinton era, Republicans took over the branch of government—Congress—that is responsible for approving all federal spending. And, not coincidentally, from that point on, balancing the federal budget became the top public-policy priority for both the legislative and executive branches of government.
No matter. Democratic-party activists and their allies have convinced themselves of their own fiscal rectitude. Which is why so many of them seem now to be having a bit of an identity crisis. They desperately want to believe in their own moral superiority on fiscal matters. But their candidate in 2012, the incumbent president, has amassed the worst fiscal record of any president in American history.
The numbers speak for themselves. At the end of 2008, the federal government’s cumulative debt stood at $5.8 trillion. In 2009, the federal government ran its first-ever trillion-dollar deficit. And then did it again in 2010 and 2011. Over those three years, the government borrowed an additional $4.2 trillion. This year will be no better. The Congressional Budget Office expects another trillion-dollar deficit. During Obama’s four-year term, the federal government will have added nearly $5.5 trillion to the government’s cumulative debt total—nearly as much as was accumulated from 1789 to 2008!
Some defenders of the administration argue that it’s unfair to blame the president for debt accumulated in 2009 since he assumed office one-third of the way into the fiscal year. But the president proposed an $800 billion spending bill within a month of taking the oath of office, with the explicit purpose of increasing the 2009 deficit in the name of Keynesian stimulus. He also took numerous executive actions to push up the deficit in his first year, particularly through the use of bailout funds.
What’s an apologist for Democratic thrift to do, then, when faced with such unpleasant facts? Why blame Bush, of course! That’s essentially the argument that’s been made since the beginning of the Obama presidency and is being repeated again now that Mitt Romney is making President Obama’s dismal record on budgetary matters an issue on the campaign trail.
It won’t work. Such a deflection of blame requires voters to absolve the president of all responsibility because he supposedly inherited the entirety of the problem and has no control over it. This will never be convincing to voters, and shouldn’t be. Instead, the electorate rightly believes that it is the president’s job to set the agenda and establish priorities. He has four years in which to change the direction of unfavorable trends, if he wants to. It is hard to blame someone else for the status quo when you make no effort to change it. Based on his record, it is apparent to everyone at this point that the president isn’t interested in fiscal restraint, deficit reduction, or fiscal conservatism. Even as the budget outlook deteriorated, his priority was to expand governmental commitments.
The truth is that we are facing pronounced fiscal pressures for one reason: the unrelenting growth in entitlement spending. In 1972, the federal government spent 4.4 percent of GDP on the big three entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Today, spending on those programs totals 10.2 percent of GDP. That jump in spending alone—six percentage points of GDP—far exceeds the size of the defense budget.
For decades, the Democratic party has defined itself as the party of entitlements and has fought at nearly every stage to expand spending rather than control it. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the last, best chance to reform Medicare occurred during the Clinton presidency, and President Clinton sabotaged the effort for political reasons. President Obama can’t be blamed for all this history. But he most definitely can be blamed for doing nothing to address the problem, and for making it much worse when he had the opportunity to make it better.
James C. Capretta is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He was an associate director at the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004.