Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s official: Conservatives only care about deficits when a Democrat is president.
Under Donald Trump the deficit is on a path to more than a trillion dollars per year and discretionary government spending is growing faster than it was under Barack Obama, when he was working to stimulate our way out of the Great Recession.
But what was angrily portrayed as generational theft and galloping socialism under President Obama is now accepted with all the outrage of a cow chewing its cud.
Everyone in Washington seems to suddenly accept the economic and political benefits of government spending, as the GOP hopes to keep the stock market goosed past Trump’s reelection. While it’s great that Washington appears to have avoided another truly stupid, self-inflicted government shutdown, Congress is whistling past the graveyard. That’s because deficits are growing while the economy is booming — up 23% in the first nine months of the fiscal year alone. That’s not supposed to happen. And there will be hell to pay when the remorseless math of rapidly falling tax revenue kicks in during the next downturn.
That is very bad news for those of us who will be left to clean up the mess after Donald Trump has left DC. Because there is no way that Democrats are ever going to fall for the inevitable Lucy and the Football moment that will come when conservatives say that it’s time to rein in spending.
No less than Rush Limbaugh just admitted the whole thing was a conservative con job, telling a caller: “All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.”
That’s quite a slap in the face after the Obama-era bipartisan Bowles-Simpson commission tried to implement the warnings of fiscal conservatives with a balanced plan that was rejected by party leaders — including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who called for its creation in no less than six floor speeches but then whipped votes against it when the rhetoric threatened to become reality.
In Trump’s Washington, deficit hawks are an endangered species. The alleged fiscal principles of the Tea Party have been sold for scrap, leaving only its nativist impulses intact. And there’s no obvious way out of the escalating deficits and debt that will compromise our fiscal independence in the next downturn.
During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump promised to eliminate America’s then-$19 trillion-dollar debt in eight years. Anyone who believed that fell for the Don’s Con — after all, this was the self-styled “King of Debt” talking. Under Trump, the national debt just passed $22 trillion for the first time in history.
The danger is that the political benefit of breezy lies seems to have been codified. And it’s too much to expect that yet another Democratic president is going to be more fiscally responsible than the Republicans who constantly talk about fiscal discipline and then deliver increased deficits and debt.
It’s a story we’ve seen repeatedly since Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton was famously the last president to preside over a budget surplus and by 2014 Barack Obama had gotten our deficits to half of what they are today under Donald Trump, despite the Great Recession. Because of the sequestration deal that was just taken off the books in this latest budget deal, Obama presided over a reduction in discretionary government spending of nearly 2% per year in his second term.
During the last Republican presidency of George W. Bush, a group of conservatives bitterly criticized its drift on deficits and debt. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence slammed the “profound loss of credibility on issues of fiscal discipline”, saying that “big government conservatism is a failed experiment.” Now that he is Vice President, Pence has been not so much muted as neutered on the issue. But no doubt, he’ll find a way to blame Democrats when we reap the whirlwind for the actions taken in his administration’s name.