Republican Party loses edge

There was a time when the Republican Party brand relied heavily on its candidates’ calls for fiscal responsibility. Reducing spending, they said, was the way to strengthen the economy.

Then President Bill Clinton came to office, vigorously attacking the deficit he’d inherited. With tough choices and important investments, Clinton changed the spending debate. The question was no longer simply how many tax dollars were spent, but what the nation was getting for its money.

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In 2001, the policies of George W. Bush answered that question for the GOP, doing the party’s brand great damage in the process. For eight years, government spending soared. Clinton’s record surpluses were converted into record deficits — even before the fiscal meltdown in 2008. After Bush’s final budget was enacted, fiscal 2009 outlays had spiked to $3.4 trillion, an 83 percent increase in overall federal spending, according to the Congressional Budget Office — compared with an eight-year increase of just 32 percent under Clinton.

So what did Americans get in return? $2.5 trillion in tax cuts skewed overwhelmingly toward the wealthy. Tens of billions in tax breaks for large corporations, including those shifting American jobs to countries like India and China. At least $700 billion spent fighting a war in Iraq. A fiscal meltdown that shed 8 million American jobs, cost 7 million Americans their homes and slashed retirement savings by $2 trillion.

When President Barack Obama was sworn in, our economy was on the verge of a second Great Depression, and he went to work to stop the bleeding. His Recovery Act required a direct shot of new spending — on unemployment benefits for laid-off workers; on middle-class tax cuts to stimulate consumer spending; and on the creation of new jobs rebuilding our infrastructure and moving America to a clean-energy future.

He signed a healthcare law that set the stage for undoing the profligate ways of the previous eight years — reducing out-of-control healthcare costs and trimming the deficit by $143 billion in the first decade alone.

Obama has targeted congressional earmarks, a position not popular on Capitol Hill. He signed pay-go legislation into law — requiring lawmakers to find offsets for new spending. He went through the federal budget line by line to identify $20 billion in cuts, and ordered a three-year freeze on all non-defense discretionary spending.

And just this week, Obama took another important step, unveiling a measure that empowers him to take appropriations bills passed by Congress, propose his own list of spending cuts and force lawmakers to vote up or down on the entire package. It’s one way to rid the budget of those sneaky last-minute additions that benefit the well-connected at the expense of our national deficit.

This comes as the president’s bipartisan debt commission is meeting, tasked with recommending structural changes that get federal spending under control for today and tomorrow.

So under Democratic leadership, what do Americans get for their money? An economy rescued from the abyss — generating more jobs last month (290,000) than any time in the past four years. Tough new rules to change the free-spending ways of Congress. Real progress in reducing long-term spending on healthcare and other budget-sapping programs.

As the party out of power, Republicans hope voters won’t pay attention to any of that — which is why they’ve rallied behind their baseless attacks on Obama’s supposed “big spending.” But what is the GOP offering?

For starters, Republicans have said they’d repeal the healthcare law — reversing Obama’s cost-saving measures and sticking the nation with another $1.3 trillion in debt over the next two decades.  

House GOP Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) unveiled an interactive website that allows visitors to “vote” on a menu of cuts the GOP sees as the solution to runaway spending. This week, you can choose such dramatic steps toward fiscal austerity as reforming the National Archives (saving a whopping $10 million next year, according to Cantor) or reducing outlays for non-essential research (returning an eye-popping $3.8 million to the U.S. Treasury). That’s bold leadership.

But for congressional Republicans, anything is better than talking about the Bush years, when they were partners in the GOP’s unfettered spending spree.  

So in November, when Republican candidates outline plans to restore America’s economic health, voters should ask themselves: How much of the GOP’s brilliant fiscal management can our pocketbooks take?


Del Cecato is a partner at AKPD Message and Media, the political consulting firm founded by David Axelrod in 1985. He served as media adviser and admaker for Obama for America and Obama-Biden 2008.