One piece of pushback I got from some right-of-center folks to yesterday’s post on how conservatives don’t care about the deficit was to say that well maybe some Republican Party elected officials are bad on this, but the conservative movement is different. I think that’s entirely false. President George H.W. Bush struck a bargain with congressional Democrats that reduced spending and decreased the deficit. Some Republican Party elected officials backed him. But conservatives were apoplectic. After all, the bill raised taxes. And conservatives care more about making taxes as low as possible than they do about reducing spending or reducing the deficit.
I had Intern Ryan take a look at National Review’s Reagan Archive and it makes the point quite clearly. Take a look at Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth celebrating the triumph of Reaganomics without offering even a glancing criticism of Ronald Reagan’s high deficits. Instead we get this:
The Reagan way was spurned throughout the 1980s as “voodoo economics” (one of George Bush Sr.’s few memorable comments.) Many college textbooks to this day even argue that Reagan’s economic policies were flawed because they created record budget deficits. But the textbooks don’t mention that as the national debt rose by $2 trillion, national wealth rose by $8 trillion. They also don’t mention that the Laffer curve worked: Lower tax rates did generate more tax revenues at the federal, state, and local levels. Federal tax collections rose from $500 billion in 1980 to $1 trillion in 1990.
In August of 1982, NR ran an editorial on the question “Has Reagan Deserted the Conservatives?” that doesn’t mention the word “deficit” at all in evaluating his record, but does deem it “astonishing that Reagan should support, rather than threaten to veto, the huge tax increase being engineered by Senator Robert Dole,” a tax increase designed to reduce the deficit.
Jonah Goldberg edged close to the truth when he wrote “the argument about government over-spending has become an argument about the deficit. I care a lot about the former, I don’t care very much about the latter.” But while it’s true that conservatives do care about spending, it’s important to remember that their overwhelming preoccupation is with taxes. The major examples of spending reductions we have, the 1990 and 1993 deficit reduction bills, are both loathed by conservatives because they included tax hikes. Conservatives don’t think it’s necessary to “pay for” tax cuts with offsetting spending reductions and they don’t think balanced deficit reduction packages make sense. That’s because they don’t care, even a little bit, about the budget deficit.