A friend once complained to me that she couldn’t trust Republicans. Paraphrasing her words: “You see them in interviews on cable news and it’s uncanny — they’re all using the exact same phrase to describe a situation. Every hour, on the hour, you’ve got a right-wing talking head repeating the line of the day, and I can’t help but think that there’s some secret board of shadowy figures, passing out memos to conservatives that tell them what they’ll be saying.”
Maybe conservatives have some deep, underlying linguistic-rhetorical bond with one another. Maybe it is just coincidence signifying nothing. I have no idea — what I do know is that when President Obama unveiled his 2012 budget proposal, every single conservative who looked at it, including myself, had the same thought come to mind:
This is an unserious budget proposal.
As far as big-ticket numbers go, Obama’s budget is nothing short of disastrous. Even in the best year of his ten-year projection, the government runs a deficit equal to 2.9 percent of GDP, never going below $600 billion. Overall, the budget has the national debt rising to $26.3 trillion by 2021, almost double today’s level.
The story of debt held by the public — the money the government needs to convince others to lend it — is just as bad. By 2012, publicly-held debt will have doubled from its 2008 size of $5.8 trillion, and by 2020 it will have more than tripled to $18.1 trillion.
Eighty percent of the budget remains completely untouched, and the remaining twenty percent is only frozen at its current (stimulus-inflated) level for five years. This budget is the picture of a nation awash in red ink, completely failing to come to grips with the problem at hand.
It gets worse. If “unserious” is the first word that comes to mind when reading the proposal, “gimmicky” is the second. The worst trick (one responsible for at least a $1.7 trillion on-paper reduction in the national debt) is the budget’s assumption that the economy will grow significantly faster than the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has projected.
Less glaring, but just as significant, are the budget’s rosy assumptions about the political process. Between now and the 2012 election, we will continue to adjust Medicare doctor reimbursement rates for inflation, but after that, no more, we promise. Likewise, we will continue to offer relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax for the next couple years, but after that we will eat our brussel sprouts, you have our word.
The most laughable of all of the tricks are the magic asterisks: the transportation budget, for example, has $328 billion in revenue from an unidentified “bipartisan financing for Transportation Trust Fund.” In other words, we don’t know where the money is coming from, but don’t worry, it won’t add to the debt.
It’s bad enough to play pretend — when you play pretend and still get numbers as awful as Obama’s, concern-verging-on-panic is the proper response.
Today’s proposal bears a striking similarity to the 2012 budget proposal that had been offered (and passed on) prior to the 2010 elections. There are minor differences, to be sure, but nothing one might expect from a president who has been so heavily rebuked in the midterms and who has been handed so many good budget ideas from his own bipartisan deficit commission. Instead of spending $3.76 trillion in 2012, Obama now proposes spending $3.73 trillion. Instead of spending $5.71 trillion in 2020, Obama now proposes spending $5.42 trillion. Following unserious and gimmicky, “business as usual” is the third impression that Obama’s budget gives.
For a president who so obsessively lays claim to the mantle of bipartisanship, this budget proposal comes as the unmasking of a great hypocrisy. Elected on a platform of change and given the political cover to make significant reforms to our budget, the leader of the Democratic party has decided he would rather attack the ideas of his opponents than suggest solutions of his own.
It is Republicans, not Democrats, who are braving the unfavorable political calculus and trying to reform the entitlement programs that make up the vast majority of our budget. It is Republicans, not Democrats, who are offering their sacred cows — cuts to military spending, tax hikes, etc. — up for slaughter even as Democrats propose raising government spending to its highest fraction of GDP since World War II. It is Republicans, not Democrats, who have put forth serious budget proposals that take action appropriate to the scale of our problem.
To those deficit hawks out there who have been on the fence, who have, in the aftermath of George Bush’s profligacy, entertained the notion that Democrats might be more serious about righting our ship of state than Republicans, let this be your Damascene moment. Go ahead and take a look at President Obama’s budget proposal. If your response is that it is an unserious and gimmicky piece of business as usual, then you don’t need a memo from the shadowy board to tell you what you already know: you are a Republican.