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Comparing Romney and Bush: Has Republican economic thinking changed since 2000?

By Ezra Klein,

One reason it’s useful to look back at George W. Bush’s 2000 platform (pdf) is that it was developed in such different circumstances. The country was swimming in surpluses. Today, we’ve got deficits as far as the eye can see. And yet, Republicans have mostly coalesced around the same set of ideas.

Dan Gleiter

Associated Press

Still his party.

Take Medicare. Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have both proposed making Medicare into a “premium support” system in which seniors get a voucher and then choose either traditional Medicare or a private-insurance plan. This is one of those tough choices we have to make because, as Ryan says, we need to “take action in the face of the most predictable economic crisis in our nation’s history.”

But back in 2000, when there was no debt crisis in the offing, Bush proposed exactly the same thing. He lauded The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, which had “introduced a reform plan modeled after the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program.” FEHBP, as you might know, is a premium support system in which the government gives federal employees vouchers to choose between various private plans.

Bush’s said that “all Medicare recipients should be given the opportunity to choose a comprehensive health plan that best reflects their health care needs.” Romney sells his plan as “giving the next generation an improved program that offers the freedom to choose what their coverage under Medicare should look like.”

The point here isn’t that remaking Medicare into a premium support program is a good idea or a bad idea. It’s just that it’s an idea Republicans have been pushing for over a decade now, in times of both surplus and deficits.

You can see this even more clearly on the tax side. Bush’s proposal included a large raft of tax cuts. “There are only two things that can be done with a surplus,” he said. “It can be used by government, as the President proposes. Or it can be used by Americans, to save and build and invest. As you can see from this tax plan, I have made my choice.”

Those tax cuts ultimately passed. Today, Romney is proposing to make them permanent, and to add more tax cuts on top of them. But he obviously can’t say that this is just the right way to spend down a surplus: There are no surpluses right now, and we’re not projected to have any, well, ever again. So he says that “breathing life into the present anemic recovery will also require fixing the nation’s tax code to focus on jobs and growth.”

Republicans were pushing tax cuts when we had surpluses and a strong economy and they’re pushing them now that we have deficits and a weak economy. And, in both cases, they used the economy as the argument for why we needed big tax cuts right now.

This isn’t necessarily an indictment: Some policies are a good idea in both strong and weak economies. Some policies make sense whether we’re running deficits or enjoying surpluses. But some don’t. You’ve seen, for instance, sharp swings in the thinking of Democratic policymakers during the recession: Clintonites who were last seen cutting government spending and raising taxes during a strong economy embraced tax cuts and deficit-financed stimulus as a way to support a weak one. Now, as the economy slowly recovers, they’re once again arguing for tax increases and spending cuts, though they would prefer to first do a bit more stimulus.

Which gets to another reason it’s useful to look at Bush’s 2000 platform: The economy has changed dramatically since 2000. Our projections for where the economy will go in the coming years have deteriorated dramatically since 2000. But with the arguable exception of large -- but vague -- spending cuts, if anything in the Republican Party’s policy platform has changed dramatically, I haven’t been able to find it. But, if you think I’ve simply missed the differences, comments are, as always, open.

Related: Romney looks to hire Bush economic team.

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