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Let history guide you


Listening to the Republican candidates for the presidency, it’s hard not to believe that it is going to take a stalwart member of the GOP to come in and turn this country around, stop deficit spending and “right the ship of state.” While that is all noble sounding and high minded, it wouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves of the political realities that these ultra-conservative candidates don’t want us to remember.

First, of course, is this: since 1968, Republicans have held the White House for 28 years, the Democrats for 16. While Congress has tilted toward the Democrats, the power of the presidency has been more or less entrenched in the GOP side of the aisle. One would have to wonder: with this predominance of power, what role did Republican leaders play in our current situation?

An analysis by economist Michael Kimel notes that the past five former Democratic presidents — Clinton, Carter, Johnson, Kennedy and Truman, have reduced the national debt, while the last four Republican presidents — Ford, Reagan, Bush the father and Bush the son — have increased the national debt. And economic historian J. Bradford DeLong suggests that the biggest contrast is between the Democrats and the “old school” Republicans, Eisenhower and Nixon, and the “new” Republicans — Reagan and the Bushes.

David Stockman, Office of Management and the Budget under Ronald Reagan and no bleeding-heart liberal, blames the increasing deficits under the Republican administrations, especially during the Reagan years, on the “ideological tax cutters” of the Reagan administration. His point was that these politicos were real big on cutting taxes but not so hot on cutting spending. And they were all Republicans.

History is a valuable tool for examining the present and predicting the future. And history does not weigh well on the side of the “tax and spend” label the GOP has pretty much always laid on the Democrats. While tax and spend isn’t great, spend and don’t tax is a lot more dangerous — and the Republican Party hasn’t shown itself very capable of weaning itself from that.

Examine the immediate past, for example. Listening to the universal Republican script, you would think that Barack Obama, in his time as president, has single-handedly led us into a wasteland of debt. You would be thinking wrong, however,based on a comprehensive New York Times analysis of the past decade.

When George W. Bush took office, there was an $890 billion surplus. Then came the tech stock bubble downturn, and that turned into a $290 billion deficit. Then Bush tax cuts, his decisions to go to war in Iraq and his Medicare Part D law added another $118 billion to the shortage. When the recession hit at the end of his term, further tax reductions and an increase in safety-net spending increased the deficit by another $480 billion, and then the costs of a two-front war and Bush’s own economic bailout plans added $417 billion more, although some of the bailout spending authorized by Bush was done shortly after Obama took office.

In 2009 and 2010, Obama’s stimulus spending added $145 billion and his domestic policies added $56 billion to the debt.

So, in eight economically tumultuous years Bush added about $1.3 trillion to the debt and Obama, in two equally difficult years, added $200 billion. Clearly, this is not a problem exclusive to one party, Romney-speak not withstanding. And clearly, any Republican candidate who lays all this at the feet of Obama and the Democrats is vigorously rewriting history.

This is not to say the Republicans are the Barbarians at the gate. The Democrats are equally culpable for poorly designed policy decisions and bad fiscal policy. But laying blame for this suddenly huge fiscal problem at the feet of policy alone is just wrong. As the Times analysis shows, both Bush and Obama found their hands tied to a large degree by the recession. The stimulus package that Obama is being savaged for was, in fact, begun by the Bush administration. So Republicans knew in 2008 that without government intervention, we would be in far worse shape than we now are and they took the necessary steps to mitigate the economic free-fall — as they should have. This is one policy decision that crossed party lines and should be warmly embraced by the American people, because without it, we’d still be mired in the muck.

The Times analysis, indeed, attributes the growing deficits to the following causes: recessions, 37 percent; Bush policies, 33 percent, Bush policies continued by Obama, 20 percent, and Obama policies, 10 percent. Much of the deficit attributed to Bush policies is directly related to battling the recession, as is the bulk of the deficit attributed to Obama decisions. So it is fairly clear that the huge deficit we’re now trying to get our arms around is most attributable to the effects of the worldwide recession.

Be a Republican supporter or back the Democrats. But do it for reasons based in fact, not in the rewriting of history and the scripted, mantra-like posturing of the Republican candidates trying to claw their way over the pack to the nomination. At this point, they appear ready to say anything to succeed, but that doesn’t mean you have to believe it all.

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