I argued in a recent article that the growing deficits may cause divisions within the Republican Party among fiscal hawks and national security hawks. Clark Stooksbury counters that if a Republican wins the White House, the party will stop caring about the deficit.
What will change when a Republican president takes office is that debt and deficits won’t matter anymore. Antle’s argument requires that one take seriously the notion that Republicans care deeply about either limited government or balanced budgets. I don’t believe that these issues are what motivates either the base or the elected officials of the party.
Certainly, history is on Stooksbury’s side. But the fiscal crisis is more dire than in the past. Standard & Poor has already downgraded the U.S. government’s credit rating. No matter what motivates Republicans, simple arithmetic means growing interest on the national debt plus entitlements is going to put the squeeze on discretionary spending.
Consider that Barack Obama, a president from a party whose membership genuinely believes that deficit spending during a weak economy is a positive good, has had to at least contemplate austerity because of the budget math. Congressional Republicans have already had to put defense spending on the table to a far greater degree than they would have preferred. This situation means that Republicans would not enter office with quite the same freedom of movement on these issues as enjoyed by Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush.
There is also a political calculation in favor of deficit-cutting that hasn’t existed in the past. Tax cuts are a large part of the GOP’s electoral appeal. Large-scale tax-cutting will be essentially taken off the table if the deficit isn’t reduced to at least manageable levels. It’s clear from Paul Ryan’s budget that the House Republicans, at least, grasp this logic.