Until 1980 it was a given that Republicans were the fiscally fastidious party and the Democrats needed a trained nurse to keep them from borrowing irresponsibly and spending the nation silly.
President Bush's new budget, revealed last week, is confirmation of just how much the difference between the two parties has been stood on its head since Ronald Reagan took office with a promise of massive "supply side" tax cuts that he assured would be "self-financing" and lead straight to a balanced budget by 1984. Reagan is so fondly remembered to this day that his great miscalculation has become lost in time's mists, a bad bet, or as Senate Republican leader Howard Baker called it at the time, "a riverboat gamble."
Bush's decision to take the federal budget back into deficit territory is in the Reagan tradition that cutting taxes is an imperative before which all others must cringe. The great conservative economist Milton Friedman even argued that Reagan's monster deficits were desirable because they at least kept pressure on Congress to restrain spending. The era from 1980 to 1992, which spans the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, was punctuated by a brutal recession in 1982, during which unemployment reached levels not seen since the last years of the Great Depression. It concluded with the recession that doomed the elder Bush to a one-term presidency.
The fiscal transformation of the two parties was completed when Bill Clinton took office in 1993, promptly raised taxes and achieved a balanced budget by 1997. It also coincided with the longest economic boom in U.S. history that didn't begin to falter until 2000. It is simplistic to imagine that everything good flowed from his balanced budgets but it is lunacy to suggest that deficits don't matter and that this wasn't one of the lessons learned from the experience of the 1990s.
If nothing else, the balanced budgets left Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan with courage not to turn off the monetary spigots that could have aborted the expansion. It was only when Greenspan began seeing inflationary visions and started raising interest rates in 2000 that the economy began falling into the slump that materialized like clockwork in 2001.
The immense increases in military spending Bush has proposed would seem more prudent if they were accompanied by a "guns over butter" strategy. Unfortunately he's promising guns and butter. This strategy suggests everything is affordable, including the tax cuts that in all likelihood commit the nation to 10 more years of deficits, after which the impending bankruptcies of the Medicare and Social Security systems will make today's deficits seem harmless and the drain on the Treasury will become insupportable. If Bush had a strategy of killing off Medicare and Social Security, it couldn't have been more cleverly fashioned.
Meanwhile, there's new evidence that even before Bush rammed through his 2001 tax cut, one that principally benefits those with million-dollar incomes, the millionaires of this nation were doing quite well for themselves. The share of their income that went to taxes fell from 31.4 percent in 1995 to 27.9 percent in 1999. The millionaire class grew from 87,000 in 1995 to 205,000 in 1999, and its average income increased from $2.6 million to $3.2 million.
Against the background of Bush's approval ratings, these figures become tiresome to report. How do you suggest weaknesses in a president who seems to carry everything before him with such masterful speeches? To the president's embarrassment, it turns out even his speechwriters' wives can't resist claiming credit for his oratory.
Danielle Crittenden, wife of Bush speechwriter David Frum, even sent out an e-mail crowing to friends that her David wrote the line in a Bush speech about the "axis of evil."
"I realize this is very Washington of me to mention, but my husband is responsible for the 'axis of evil' segment," she wrote. "It's not often a phrase one writes gains national notice ... so I hope you'll indulge my wifely pride in seeing this one repeated in headlines everywhere." Someone must tell this woman that presidents, especially Bush, thrive on the myth that they do not have speechwriters or that they at least have sense enough to read a Teleprompter and make their words sound like a burst of spontaneous eloquence.