The falling deficit has been a disaster for the GOP

September 26, 2013

There was a logic to Republicans' 2011 debt-ceiling demands. It was the logic underpinning the party's entire platform. It was the argument that had won them the 2010 election. And it was an argument that made sense as part of negotiations over the debt ceiling.

Deficits exploded during the financial crisis. Really, exploded. Here's the graph:

deficits since 2000
Data: U.S. Budget; Graph: made with Infogram. Note: The lower the line, the larger the deficit.

In 2010, Republicans campaigned on a promise to bring debt and deficits down by cutting spending. When they won the election, they argued that it would be a betrayal of their mandate to permit the government to borrow more without first forcing the budget discipline they'd promised voters.

And so that's exactly what they did. They negotiated spending cuts before they would agree to a debt-ceiling increase. But then something terrible happened to the Republican Party: Success.

It wasn't all their success. Part of it is the economy improving. Part of it is new taxes passed into law by the Obama administration. Part of it is slower-than-expected health costs, and lower-than-expected interest rates. But the deficit has fallen dramatically. In fact, it's fallen at a faster rate than at any other time since World War II. And the Congressional Budget Office sees it stabilizing in the (totally manageable) two-to-three percent range through the next decade.

deficits 2018
Data: U.S. Budget and CBO projections; Graph: made with Infogram

This is the context for the latest debt-ceiling fight: Republicans delivered on their 2010 promise to reduce the deficit, and now they're adrift. There's no single goal --save maybe the impossible dream of repealing Obamacare -- that really serves as the raison d'etre of this Republican Party. When's the last time you heard an elected Republican really try and sell the Ryan budget as the key answer to the nation's problems?

That's what you're seeing in the insane mash-up that is the House GOP's debt-ceiling bill. They needed to throw everything into it because there's no one overriding policy idea that holds today's Republican Party together. So Speaker Boehner is buying off some House Republicans with his Obamacare delay, and others with looser drilling regulations, and others with Paul Ryan's tax reform, and so on.

Unlike in 2011, the GOP can't point to a mandate for this agenda. In fact, they ran on it in 2012 and lost.

But more to the point, this agenda, unlike their 2011 agenda, has little to do with debt or deficits. There was a logic to the position that "we won't let the government borrow more to pay its bills unless it comes up with a plan to spend less in the future." There's no logic to the position "we won't let the government borrow more to pay its (more manageable) bills unless it blocks net neutrality and agrees to more offshore oil drilling and delays implementation of a debt-reducing health-care law we don't like."

There's been a lot of talk about how today's GOP seems even more fractious and uncertain than 2011's GOP. Part of that, of course, is losing the presidential election. Defeating Obama was part of what held the GOP together. But part of it is that they've largely achieved the policy goal most of them were sent to Washington to achieve. They carry all the anger and fear and commitment they had in 2011, but they don't really know what to do with it.

Correction: The first paragraph of this story originally said "the argument that won them the 2000 election." That was a typo. It's been corrected to "2010 election."

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Sarah Kliff · September 26, 2013