On Sunday, Eric Cantor claimed that the deficit is “growing.” That’s wrong, but PolitiFact took a look at the claim and rated it “half true.” How did Politifact reach this conclusion? After acknowledging that, yes, the deficit is falling, PolitiFact argued that it is set to rise later: “unless policies are changed, deficits are projected to grow again in 2016 and beyond, according to the CBO.”

The central fact at the heart of any rational fiscal debate right now is that deficits are coming down fast, even as the economy remains depressed. The sharp decline in deficits means that the medium-term debt outlook is no longer remotely scary; indeed, even if you project out to 2030 it doesn’t look too bad. At the same time, sharply reducing deficits in a depressed economy, with interest rates up against the zero lower bound, looks like extremely bad macro policy.
So that’s what we should be discussing: do we want deficits coming down this fast?
Yet here we have a senior GOP official talking as if we lived in an alternative universe in which deficits are rising, not falling. And PolitiFact declares his statement half true.

Indeed, if you look back at the transcript of Cantor’s full remarks, you’ll see that the House Majority Leader explicitly cited the deficit as justification for the GOP’s current policy posture. Right after citing the “growing deficit,” Cantor went on to suggest that this is why Republicans will stage a confrontation over the debt ceiling this fall. The debt limit, Cantor claimed, is “not some sort of fictional process or just a process that we go through.” Republican leaders have conceded the debt limit must be raised to preserve the full faith and credit of the U.S. — but they nonetheless say Republicans will demand equivalent spending cuts in exchange for agreeing to raise it. Here Cantor seems to cite the “growing deficit” as the reason the debt limit hike must not be treated as standard operating procedure.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Cantor cited the deficit as the reason Republicans would insist that the sequester cuts be replaced with only entitlement cuts, describing entitlements as the “real problem” we face. Dems, by contrast, want to replace the sequester with a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts — including to entitlements. But the GOP position is it must only be replaced with spending cuts — which Cantor here justifies with an allusion to the deficit.

The bigger story here is that Republicans have persuaded the base that the push for the lowest spending levels possible is akin to a moral crusade, a higher calling whose urgency must never be questioned. This idea is incompatible with the notion that the deficit is falling, even just in the near term. The current GOP posture is premised on a whole series of falsehoods about spending, ones designed to obscure the facts that Dems have already made major concessions on spending, and that Obama has steadily offered Republicans some of the very entitlement cuts they themselves have asked for. The notion that the deficit poses an urgent and immediate threat is central to this larger ongoing deception.

If PolitiFact had declared Cantor’s statement flatly false, and added the caveat that the deficit is projected to grow later, that would be accurate. Similarly, if Cantor had put it the same way, that would have been nice, too. But the larger political and policy context shows that misleading folks about the near term deficit in particular is critical and indeed represents a very serious falsehood. Yet PolitiFact essentially let it skate.


UPDATE: PolitiFact has posted a response to all the criticism right here.