Republicans Care About Taxes and Spending, Not Deficits

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 6:28 PM EST

Tim Geithner says, correctly, that we're actually pretty close to fixing our long-term deficit problems. He then suggests that since there's only a little more to be done, "it should be relatively easy to reach an agreement." Paul Krugman is not amused:

To say what should be obvious: Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system. They want a fiscal crisis; they need it; they’re enjoying it. I mean, how is “starve the beast” supposed to work? Precisely by creating a fiscal crisis, giving you an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that they’re going to cheerfully accept a deal that will take the current deficit off the table as a scare story without doing major damage to the key social insurance programs, and then have a philosophical discussion about how we might change those programs over the longer term, is pure fantasy. That would amount to an admission of defeat on their part.

Now, maybe we will get that admission of defeat. But that’s what it will be — not a Grand Bargain between the parties, acting together in the nation’s interest.

Yep. Republicans haven't cared about the deficit for decades. They got a bit worried about it when Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut didn't pay for itself the way he promised, and this prompted them to reluctantly pass Reagan's 1982 tax increase. But they very quickly sent that 1982 bill down the memory hole, pretending to this day that Saint Ronnie never increased taxes. Since then, they've cared about deficits only when Democrats were in office.

As it happens, I don't think there's anything nefarious about this. Republicans don't like Democratic spending priorities, and yelling about the deficit is a very effective way of objecting to all of them without having to waste time arguing about each one separately. It's an effective strategy with the press corps, which for some reason is deficit-phobic, and it's effective with the public, which generally retains its belief that government finances are similar to household finances. If I were a Republican, I'd latch onto deficits as an anti-spending tactic too. It works pretty well.

That said, it's still worth keeping the truth in mind. What frustrates me isn't so much that Republicans do this—that's just politics—but that the press so routinely lets them get away with it. I understand the constraints they work under, but still. The difference between actual Republican priorities and claimed Republican priorities is so obvious that it hardly counts as editorializing to point it out.

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