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The GOP’s False Fiscal Narrative
The often-used storyline that Republicans are desperate to balance America’s books is false, and so is the one about the GOP and the Democrats both being prisoners of their ideological extremes, says Peter Beinart.
Jul 11, 2011 1:59 AM EDT

Reading about the debt-reduction talks is painful. It’s painful because in analyzing them, the media frequently fall back on storylines that just aren’t true.

Storyline No. 1: Republicans are desperate to balance America’s books. This is, to be sure, what Republicans say. But is there any reason to take them at face value? During the Bush years, after all, the GOP was anything but desperate to put America’s fiscal house in order. The Bush administration launched wars that increased the deficit, pushed tax cuts that increased the deficit, even pushed entitlement expansions—such as the prescription-drug benefit—that increased the deficit.

At times, top White House officials dismissed the idea that debt was a problem at all. When Bush’s first Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, warned that the Bush tax cuts would expand the deficit, Dick Cheney famously replied, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter.” If Barack Obama or Joe Biden said that today, Tea Partiers would begin shooting their muskets at the White House. But when Cheney did, it produced barely any right-wing outcry at all.

Ask today’s Republicans about all this and they’ll tell you they spent the Bush years secretly seething at W’s profligate ways. But they did an excellent job of hiding it. Bush, after all, garnered the largest conservative turnout in history in 2004, after four years in which he did almost everything in his power to push America into the red.

But why focus on the past? Every day brings fresh evidence that debt reduction is way down on the GOP’s priority list. If Republicans simply wanted to reduce the debt by as much as possible, they’d agree to large cuts in defense, and agree to raise taxes, both of which would not only reduce the debt in their own right but give Democrats cover to back larger cuts in entitlements. But when House Speaker John Boehner broached something along these lines, Republicans rose up in fury, insisting that he oppose any tax increases, even if the result is a substantially smaller deficit-reduction deal.

So the oft-repeated narrative is wrong: Republicans are not desperate to reduce America’s debt. They are desperate to reduce the debt so long as it doesn’t conflict with their two higher priorities: opposing tax cuts and maintaining defense spending. Those are two rather large caveats.