Well, that was weird.
Tuesday night’s vice-presidential debate felt, as Ezra Klein noted on Twitter, as if it “fell out of a time warp.” Moderator Elaine Quijano spent far more time on Russia than she did on domestic policy as a whole. She roped together an entire raft of topics under the outdated phrase “social issues.” And she asked a grand total of two question on the economy — and both of those were literally outsourced to a deficit scold organization whose Twitter handle is “@BudgetHawks.”
Quijano did not ask either candidate about their plans to foster job growth. She did not broach the subject of trade. Or ask about home ownership. Or wages. Or job training. Or poverty.
Instead, she asked just two questions about economic policy, and she explicitly attributed both of them to the “nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.” The first asked if the two vice presidential candidates are “concerned that adding more to the debt could be disastrous for the country.” The second warned of a grim future, “when the Social Security Trust Funds run out of money.”
So who is the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget? They are probably the leading advocacy group promoting the idea that federal deficits are out of control and shrinking them should be a top priority. Their board members include both Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of a government commission that tried and failed to advance various proposals supported by deficit hawks in 2010. Pete Peterson, a billionaire who is probably the nation’s leading funder of anti-deficit advocacy, is also a board member.
To be sure, there are many people — especially in elite media circles — who share the Committee’s view that deficits are a pressing issue. But Quijano’s decision to focus on this to the exclusion of all other economic policy questions is odd. It is especially odd because the case for aggressive deficit reduction is weaker today than it has been in years.
In 2009, when President Obama took office, America’s deficit was 9.8 percent of our gross domestic product. Compared to historic levels, that is very high — although high deficits are normal during a recession. When the economy is weak, tax revenue declines at the very same time that more Americans are taking advantage of safety net programs. And that means more money going out of the federal treasury and less money coming in.
Seven years later, however, the deficit was only a quarter of the size it was when Obama first moved into the White House. In 2015, the deficit was only 2.5 percent of GDP. It’s now lower than it was at any point during the entirely of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Quijano, in other words, fixated on the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget’s pet issue, despite the fact that our current leadership has done an extraordinary job of reducing the deficit.
Perhaps she could have asked a few questions about jobs instead.