Digging Holes at CPAC

Terrance Heath

I knew it was going to be a good day when the first thing I saw at CPAC was Herman Cain’s bus.

The first thing I saw at CPAC.

I’m going to give Herman the benefit of the doubt that he sat in the front of the bus this time.

I got my laptop open just in time to catch the “It’s the Spending, Stupid! Why Is It So Hard To Cut a Trillion Dollars,” and Sen. Mike Lee (UT) was trotting out that hoary adage about digging a hole: “The first law of holes is: if you are in one, stop digging.” Lee pointed to our national debt to make the point that America is in a hole, and — naturally — accused President Obama and the Democratic party of digging the hole, and refusing to allow or help Republicans to fill it.

*Sigh*. Not that the CPAC audience would notice, but Lee was digging himself into a hole with that argument. They don’t see the hole any more than Lee does. I see it, and I’ve got some “shovel-ready” facts. So I’m going to fill it.

Bush beat Obama’s deficit spending by 5 to 1.

Because front-running GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney keeps harping on President Obama’s deficit spending, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein teamed up recently with some folks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities to calculate which recent president’s policies have led to the largest growth in the national debt. George W. Bush was the winner. And not by a nose.

From 2001 to 2009, Bush’s policies, including two wars, higher Pentagon spending in addition to those wars, tax cuts, higher discretionary spending and the prescription drug program contributed $5.1 trillion to the nation’s debt. From 2009 to 2017 (using projections for 2011-2017), Obama’s policies have added or will add $983 billion. Not even in the same ballpark. Klein:

There is a way to tally the effects Obama has had on the deficit. Look at every piece of legislation he has signed into law. Every time Congress passes a bill, either the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the effect it will have on the budget over the next 10 years. And then they continue to estimate changes to those bills. If you know how to read their numbers, you can come up with an estimate that zeros in on the laws Obama has had a hand in. […]

So the center built a baseline that includes everything that predated Obama and everything we knew about the path of the economy and the actual trajectory of spending through August 2011. Deviations from the baseline represent decisions made by the Obama administration. Then we measured the projected cost of Obama’s policies.

It’s no surprise the conservatives would miss that gaping hole. After all they chose Mitch Daniels — the OMB director under Bush, who oversaw the digging of that hole — to deliver the response to the president’s State of the Union address.

In issuing the Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union address, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels had the audacity to present himself as a fiscal conservative and lecture President Obama on economic policy. Daniels presenting himself as a fiscal conservative is farcical: The tax cuts he pushed through for President George W. Bush as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) are responsible for roughly half of today’s structural budget deficit and half the public debt accumulated last decade. And as expensive as they were, those tax cuts failed to spur even mediocre job growth; Daniels and Bush presided over the weakest economic expansion since World War II, leaving Daniels with a dismal legacy as an economic policymaker.

Daniels ran OMB from Jan. 2001 to June 2003; during his tenure, he helped craft the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. (Later tax acts accelerated implementation of some of these tax cuts, but this is when the real fiscal malfeasance occurred.) When Daniels took charge of OMB, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was projecting a $5.0 trillion (4.0 percent of GDP) budget surplus over the next decade. When he left office, CBO was projecting a $1.4 trillion (-1.0 percent of GDP) budget deficit over the next decade. Roughly $4.8 trillion of the fiscal deterioration resulted from legislation enacted over 2001-2003; the tax cuts alone added $2.6 trillion to the public debt over 2001-2010. (The other major drivers of this fiscal deterioration were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which Daniels didn’t bother to pay for or even put on budget.) The 2001 recession certainly contributed to the emerging deficits—just as half of this year’s deficit can be chalked up to economic weakness—but the Bush administration’s economic policies ensured a mediocre economic recovery.

Though this supply-side snake oil was peddled as economic stimulus, the Bush-era tax cuts failed every test of good stimulus: They were gradually phased-in, they were targeted to upper-income households likely to save rather than spend, and they were intended to be permanent. Better economic policy could have alleviated the ensuing ‘jobless recovery.’

This is the guy that some conservatives wanted to jump into the GOP primary race, bare a week ago.

Americans know who dug the hole.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that 54 percent of Americans consider George W. Bush primarily responsible for the problems facing the economy, while only 29 percent put the blame on President Obama. Even one in five Republicans blames Bush rather than Obama.

Of course, voters could pin the recession on Bush but still feel Obama hasn’t done enough to speed the recovery. This is largely the argument Mitt Romney makes when he says Obama “made the recession worse.” And the poll provides some support of it: 48 percent of Americans approve of Obama’s job performance — an increase over recent months — but only 45 percent approve of his work on job creation, and 52 percent say Obama, in general, has accomplished “not much” or “little or nothing.”

Those numbers make it pretty clear the hole Lee and the CPACers don’t even know they’re in. And that last set of numbers makes it clear that the Lee and the CPACers are missing something else.

Lee went on to say refer to the latest jobs numbers, which are good but nowhere near what’s needed, and accused the president of accepting the current level of unemployment as “good enough.” I’m not going to go so far as to call Sen. Lee a liar. Instead, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he just didn’t hear what the president actually said — especially his message to congressional Republicans.

The best news of the day was not just the upside surprise of the jobs numbers, but the reaction of President Obama. He joined commentators in hailing the good news: “the economy is growing stronger. The recovery is speeding up.” But he wasn’t proclaiming “recovery winter,” a reference to the ruinous White House plan to campaign on the recovery in the summer of 2010, after prematurely turning to deficit reduction in the State of the Union that year.

Instead, the president greeted the jobs report by pushing for more action. “We must do everything in our power to keep it [jobs growth] going.” He called on Congress to act on his initiative, unveiled in the State of the Union address this year, to create a $1 billion Veterans Jobs Corps to employ returning veterans in public construction projects over the next five years, and to send $5 billion in incentives to cities and towns to hire veterans as firefighters and other emergency responders. And the president laid down a clear challenge to House Republicans that they should act immediately to extend the payroll tax cut or earn justified blame for interfering with the recovery:

“Now is not the time for self-inflicted wounds to the economy. So I want to send a clear message to Congress: Do not slow the recovery that we are on; do not muck it up; keep it moving in the right direction.”

Given how House Republicans are fairing in the polls lately, they’d do well to listen to the president on this one.

House Republican poll ratings have plunged over the past year, as Washington’s brutal battles have taken a toll on a party that was flying high last January when it took the majority.

Long, drawn-out skirmishes over the debt ceiling, the supercommittee and the payroll tax holiday have led to a 64 percent unfavorable rating for Republicans, with their favorable numbers sitting at 29 percent, according to an internal poll conducted by GOP pollster David Winston in the final days of December 2011.

To illustrate how precipitous a drop that is, Republicans started off 2011 with a 43 percent favorable rating and 46 percent unfavorable rating.

At the same time, President Barack Obama continues to gain ground on congressional Republicans on a central issue: jobs and growing the economy. When asked who is more focused on those two objectives, 49 percent of those polled believe it’s Obama, while 40 percent say it’s Republicans in Congress. It’s the fifth straight month Obama was ahead of Republicans in Congress — Republicans led Obama in early August.

Republicans say the dip in poll numbers is because the party slipped up on its jobs message. Democrats, by contrast, have 38 percent favorable ratings, and 57 percent unfavorable numbers — a slight improvement from November.

Not only do Republicans not see the hole they’ve dug themselves into, or how they’ve blocked the president’s attempts to fill the unemployment hole, but they’re not listening to the guy who’s standing on topsoil and telling them to stop digging that hole, and start helping to fill the one they helped dig for the whole country.

Oh, and they sort of answered the question, “How hard is it to cut a trillion dollars?” Lee, along with Rep. Tom Graves (R, GA), Sen. Ron Johnson (R, WI), and moderator Colin Hanna sat down after their speeches and rattled off ideas like “Get out of the Department of Education,” and “freezing retirement,” etc.

Naturally, they left out military spending. In terms of spending, it’s the weakest job creator, that has doubled since 2001.

A new report released today by SIPRI, a Swedish-based think tank, reveals that U.S. military spending has almost doubled since 2001. The U.S. spent an astounding $698 billion on the military last year, an 81% increase over the last decade.

U.S. spending on the military last year far exceeded any other country. We spent six times more than China — the second largest spender. Overall, the world expended $1.6 trillion on the military, with the United States accounting for the lion’s share:

As a percentage of GDP, U.S. military spending has increased from 3.1% in 2001 to 4.8% last year.

How do you cut a trillion dollars? Here’s a good place to start. It’s one more hole America can afford to stop digging. Except, that is, for CPAC.

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