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Mona Charen / March 10, 2009

The Risible Claim of “Responsibility”

Happening to scroll through old news the other day, I came across this declaration from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: “While President Bush continues to trumpet his so-called ‘economic achievements,’ the Bush Administration confirmed today that the budget deficit for 2006 will be one of the largest in our nation’s history. President Bush’s failed economic policies have resulted in budgets that are drastically out of balance and skyrocketing debt. Budget deficits translate into higher interest rates, which means that mortgages cost more, credit-card debt grows, and student loans cost more. … Democrats know how to restore fiscal discipline with tough policies of pay-as-you-go budgeting, no new deficit spending…”

Cough cough. Daniel Casse at the Commentary Magazine blog offers additional golden oldies. He remembers the New York Times’ Paul Krugman writing in 2003, “As a drunk is to alcohol, the Bush administration is to budget deficits,” as well as Thomas Friedman lamenting just a few months ago that “Under George W. Bush, America has foisted onto future generations a huge financial burden to finance our current tax cuts, wars and now bailouts.”

Bush and the Republicans committed their share of fiscal sins (more on that in a moment) but what is maddening about Obama and the Democrats is their gall. Not only do they toss aside any concern about deficits without so much as a blush while taking our national debt into truly frightening territory, they also do so in the name of “responsibility.” You can call a donkey a thoroughbred but that doesn’t make it so. The Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress are increasing federal spending on nearly everything under the sun (except national defense) and claiming (utterly disingenuously) that tax hikes on the top 2 percent of earners will pay for it all. The rest of the nation can gorge itself while taking credit for prudence and responsibility.

Dishonesty and self-congratulation going hand in hand! It’s dishonest because, as the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, there just isn’t enough cash, even at the top of the income pyramid, to pay for all this: “A tax policy that confiscated 100 percent of the taxable income of everyone in America earning over $500,000 in 2006 would only have given Congress an extra $1.3 trillion in revenue. That’s less than half the 2006 federal budget of $2.7 trillion and looks tiny compared to the more than $4 trillion Congress will spend in fiscal 2010.” So the money isn’t even there. But more galling is the idea that increasing the degree of dependence Americans have on their government is a step toward responsibility. Admittedly, a deep recession is not the time for cutbacks on welfare, food stamps, or other forms of relief. But can’t we at least be honest about it? We are increasing dependence, not responsibility.

Besides, as is always the case, most of the beneficiaries of government largesse are not the poor or the dispossessed. Most of the trillions we are about to spend will exchange hands high above the poor and struggling. Most grantees are in favored industries, belong to politically protected unions, or work directly for governments at all levels.

For eight years, the Democrats have entertained us with a great song and dance about deficits. It is now evident that they were, not to put too fine a point on it, insincere.

On the other hand, some of us have been calling out Republicans, in good times and bad, for abandoning principle. In 2003, for example, I wrote: “When it comes to spending, alas, the Republicans are hardly Eagle Scouts either. The ideal of smaller government is in eclipse at the moment. The terror attacks have been seized as an opportunity to lard on new spending for favored constituencies. Citizens Against Government Waste estimates that the federal government will spend $22.5 billion on 9,362 pork barrel projects in 2003.” And in a 2005 column titled “Who Are These Republicans,” I wrote, “And now President Bush, whose greatest sin in his first term was failure to wield the veto pen, has joined enthusiastically in the legalized looting of the taxpayer.”

This is not to argue that the two parties are indistinguishable. Republicans erred in the last decade by relinquishing their principles too much. But Democrats err in embracing theirs. The level of recklessness we are now witnessing with the public purse (and with national defense) should establish beyond doubt that we have elevated the supremely irresponsible party.


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