Few current politicians can lay tighter claim to the Tea Party mantle than White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.
The South Carolina Republican rode the 2010 Obama backlash into a House seat as one of Paul Ryan’s “Young Guns,” a more establishment-friendly subset of the broader right-wing surge. The group build its political house atop deficit panic and promises to rein in a supposedly malcontrolled federal spending apparatus.
Interest rates were negative at the time. The world’s financial systems were begging the United States government to take their money and spend it on putting people back to work. But Democrats had already bargained against themselves in the 2009 stimulus package fight, ultimately producing a lump of spending projects and tax cuts that was at best half the size of what was required by the worst economic collapse in 80 years.
The result: Unnecessary pain for millions. The nation’s GDP remained trillions of dollars below its potential and millions of Americans willing and able to work remained unemployed. Yet even after the under-stimulating 2009 policy choices, Republicans like Mulvaney made hay of the deficits and retook the House.
As a junior back-bench figure in the new GOP majority under then-Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Mulvaney didn’t get as much of the spotlight as Reps. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA). But he remained a staunch cheerleader for the austerity Republicans demanded and the White House grudgingly agreed to. Through years of stunt votes, spending intransigence, do-nothing debt commissions, and even a government shutdown, Mulvaney and the right-wing brigade held budgetary balance as a sacred duty even as every economic indicator called for spending more money on a population starved of dignity and basic economic security.
But now Donald Trump is president, and Mick Mulvaney suddenly loves deficits.
“We need to have new deficits,” Mulvaney told Fox News Sunday, in response to questions about the budget-busting implications of Trump’s proposed tax cuts. “We need to have the growth. If we simply look at this as being deficit-neutral, you’re never going to get the type of tax reform and tax reductions that you need to get to sustain 3 percent economic growth. We really do believe that the tax code is what’s holding back the American economy.”
Mulvaney’s whiparound on the growth-driving potential of deficits now that both the partisanship and the policy mechanic suit him are obnoxious, but perhaps not altogether surprising. Indeed, while Mulvaney’s newest formulation of this thought is more flagrant, he’s been open since at least the spring about his lust for deficits as long as they are caused by tax cuts. His defense of Trump’s hypocritical budget blueprint in April explicitly tagged this pro-deficit base, revealing Mulvaney’s belief that “the market distribution of income is sacrosanct,” as Jonathan Chait put it.
But a jaded dismissal of Mulvaney’s reversal would take pressure off an administration still very much in the middle of a trickle-down grift that will exacerbate inequality — and let Mulvaney off a personal hook for his role in perpetuating the harms of the Wall Street collapse for years longer than was necessary.
Through three full terms, Mulvaney helped thwart sensible fiscal policy from the Obama White House with uncommon zeal and talent for a newbie. He told anyone who’d listen that shutting the government down over spending and abortion was “good policy.” He not only opposed raising the debt ceiling to prevent economic calamity, but proposed legislation to lower the statutory borrowing cap — effectively a plan to proactively downgrade the U.S. economy and dump millions of workers onto the dole.
In 2013, he tried to block relief funding for Superstorm Sandy’s carnage unless the emergency spending came with offsetting cuts. His zeal for keeping spending down in fealty to the debt gods is so stern that even after a friend who had volunteered for his campaign told him that Mulvaney-backed budget cuts had gotten him laid off and left his family on the brink of eviction, he excused it as simply the concerns of a single constituent.
The deficit myopia that Mulvaney helped instill in all of Washington’s decision-making processes while in Congress forced government eyes off the ball. Outcomes for real people became secondary to balance-sheet abstractions. All the way back in early 2011, as the ink was still drying on Mulvaney’s new office door, the economist James Galbraith noted that budget conversations had already abandoned their proper material. “Does it deal with unemployment, does it deal with the foreclosure crisis,” Galbraith told The American Prospect. “In a real world those are the important issues. [But] I defy you to find me a single news story on the initiatives in this [White House] budget that deal with any of those questions.”
Six years later, from a new office with a new boss and less accountability to the voters his ideas hurt than ever before, Mulvaney is the same man. He’s just free to acknowledge that he never cared about deficits as a matter of principle.