The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

So whatever happened to the deficit?

File: Mitt Romney engages with his debt clock in Dover, N.H. in 2011. (Photo by Philip Rucker/The Washington Post)

Not so long ago the federal deficit was projected to destroy the country, our children’s future and just about everything else. The politicians and media regularly fretted about what to do. Budget battles shut down the entire government for a couple weeks.

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously traveled about the country with his campaign-made “giant, green, glowing debt clock,” our colleague Philip Rucker reported. Romney gestured at it, he bragged about it.  A Romney aide told the Wall Street Journal in May 2012 that the clock focused people on “the most pressing issue right now.”

How times change.

A count by our colleague Alice Crites illustrates how the issue gained media traction – – especially after the Bush/Obama stimulus packages to mitigate Bush’s Great Recession — and how much it’s faded from the front pages. (We’re hearing that reporters who’ve had a great run covering this issue are quite glum these days.)

So what happened? Simple answer, of course, is that the deficit is way down and, for now, no longer a big problem.

This week’s Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate for the fiscal 2014 deficit is $492 billion, or 2.8 percent of gross domestic product, which is pretty much where it was back in the early part of the Bush II administration –though it’s expected to rise sharply in coming years.

No one is really working the issue very hard on the stump, patting themselves on the back, talking about the wonderful Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. (Okay, maybe that wasn’t a big deal and only passed because neither party cared all that much any more.)

While President Obama has talked about the dramatic reduction in the deficit, “most Democrats never thought the deficit was the right issue on which to focus,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow and Clinton administration policy adviser Bill Galston.  “They were very critical of the attention Obama gave it during 2011,” he told the Loop, so they’re not that interested in bragging about the progress.

Tea Party Republicans, Galston noted, have “an enormous investment in the proposition that ‘spending’ remains out of control and fear that acknowledging the lower deficit would reduce the power of their narrative.”

And maybe the GOP base has plenty of other things to rally around: a most unpopular president, Benghazi or House Speaker John Boehner‘s lawsuit against Obama for failing to enforce parts of Obamacare.

The real problem, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former CBO director and top economic policy adviser to Sen. John McCain‘s 2008 presidential campaign, tells us, is that: “Congratulations are due to American workers, entrepreneurs and families for their work toward economy recovery that has reduced the deficit. Collectively, Washington has done essentially nothing, unless you count stopping making it worse.”

Well, we don’t miss the deficit. But we sure miss that clock.