The Republicans and the National Debt

by A. Jay Adler on November 18, 2010

The chart making the rounds in recent days is Chuck Finney’s graph of the increase or decrease of the national debt since 1949 over both Democratic and Republican administrations.

It’s striking, it’s powerful, visuals always help, but it is also nothing that was not already known. Economic growth reduces deficits and debt, recession, as Ezra Klein points out, as well as supply side economics and tax cuts completely incommensurate with the extent of government service most Americans actually do desire, increases deficit and the national debt. In modern U.S. history, it is unarguable, too, Republicans increase the deficits and debt.

Ah, but it is not entirely unarguable. Conservatives, who often fancy themselves more empirically-based logical thinkers that mushy idealist Dems, will like the jerk of the knee argue back that it is the congress that initiates the spending and budgetary process. Under those poor besieged beacons of fiscal sanity, Presidents Reagan and Bush et fils, it was a spendthrift Democratic congress – and the Cons will point to bills – that led us to deficit perdition.

There is one gaping whole in that argument: one might wish to lose a mass delusion in it. During all those years of deficit and debt reduction under Democrats and Eisenhower (who couldn’t win a Republican primary these days), with the sole exception of 1953-55, when Republicans held the barest majorities in the Senate and House, there were, just as under the debt compilers, Democratic congresses. Somehow, under the leadership of Presidents guided by sound governance and not senseless ideology, they pursued sane budgetary policy.

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