As the actual voting in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries approached, Pete Buttigieg began running more and more as a moderate. The candidate who had advocated a radical plan to change the size of the Supreme Court and supported Medicare-for-all has of late been heaping scorn on the more ambitious policy proposals of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and offering himself as a safe, unthreatening choice who can appeal to just about anybody.

But now he has gone too far. Buttigieg is dabbling in an incredibly dangerous bit of deficit hawkery, of a kind that should give any Democrat hives. In fact, you could say he’s laying the foundation for Republicans to subvert or even destroy his presidency, should he be fortunate enough to get elected.

To be fair, this is something Buttigieg has said from time to time throughout his candidacy. But since he sort-of won the Iowa caucuses and stands a good chance of winning the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, him being the Democratic nominee looks like a genuine possibility for the first time. Which means we should be paying much closer attention not only to the substance of what he’s proposing but the way he talks about certain kinds of policy choices. Because the consequence for the next president will be profound.

“How important is the deficit to you?”
Buttigieg’s eyes lit up as he answered. “Important — that’s the short answer,” he said. “And I think the time has come for my party to get a lot more comfortable owning this issue. Because we’ve seen what’s happened with this president — a trillion dollar deficit, and his allies in Congress do not care. So we’ve got to do something about it!”
“It’s not fashionable in progressive circles, I think, to talk too much about the debt,” he acknowledged. But Buttigieg was there to offer some hard truths.

Democrats trying to “own this issue” is just the problem.

For far too long, Democrats have accepted a set of arguments Republicans make when there’s a Democrat in the White House: Deficits are a terrible threat to the health of the country. The government budget should operate like a household budget. Our grandchildren will get a bill for X thousands of dollars if we don’t start paying down the debt right now.

The fact that Republicans abandon all the deficit talk when there’s a Republican president and move to provide economic stimulus through tax cuts isn’t just a bit of hypocrisy that it’s fun to point out. It’s incredibly important. When a Democrat is president, they use deficit fear-mongering not just as a means of restraining safety net programs they don’t like anyway but as a way to sabotage the economy.

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I am not exaggerating in the least. And Buttigieg is signaling a willingness to help them do it again if he becomes president.

This is what happened when Barack Obama was president. Not only did Republicans fight against every measure to aid the economy as it was in the depths of the worst crisis since the Great Depression, once they took over the House in 2010, they forced Obama to agree to austerity measures that significantly held back the recovery.

And it was made easier by the fact that Obama began his negotiations with Republicans by accepting the idea that government spending had to be restrained. That’s how we got the “sequester,” just part of years-long fight that held down spending when it was still needed.

And let’s be clear: Republicans knew exactly what they were doing. It isn’t just about anti-government ideology, it’s about undermining Democratic presidents by making the economy worse than it could be. And their phony deficit hawkery is the tool they use to do it.

Which brings us back to Buttigieg. There’s a good chance the next president will face a recession, through no fault of their own — the economy has been expanding for over a decade, the longest period between recessions in U.S. history, and a downturn has to come sooner or later. And if there’s a Democrat in the White House when the next recession hits, Republicans will immediately begin shouting that we need to “tighten our belts” just like a household does, by enacting austerity policies that slash government spending, especially the safety net.

By pulling money out of the economy at precisely the moment when government should be putting more money in, that austerity will make the recession deeper and longer. Republicans will then use Americans’ suffering to say that they should be put back in charge.

And if the president has been out on the campaign trail talking about how important it is to cut the deficit, he’ll begin the battle over how to address the recession at a disadvantage. He’ll have already accepted the Republicans’ basic premise that deficits are dangerous and the only responsible thing to do is to bring them down. He might try to argue that this isn’t the time or that he wants to do it the right way, but in the end he’ll have conceded half the ground.

That’s the danger of what Buttigieg is saying right now. Maybe it makes him sound moderate or reasonable to those who don’t really understand the implications, which is most voters. But the whole country could pay the price.

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