Not that long ago, Rep. Paul Ryan was freaked out about the national debt.
The “red tidal wave of debt,” he told Sean Hannity back in 2012, would trigger what he called the “most predictable economic crisis we have ever had in this country.” Debt would mean nothing less than the “end of the American dream.”
In 2012, the debt stood at $15 trillion, and the exploding costs of entitlements, Ryan said, meant that “by the time my grandkids are raising their grandkids, we are taking 80 cents out of every dollar just to pay for this federal government at that time.”
Ryan, who was then House Budget Committee chairman and soon to be the GOP’s vice presidential nominee, warned that the debt crisis would be catastrophic to the American way of life, leading to a massive rise in interest rates and — eventually — “bitter austerity” measures including “cuts to current seniors” and “cuts to the safety net.”
He also said the crisis was imminent: “All the experts are telling us we have about two to three years, is the time frame they tell us.”
That was five years ago. Ryan is now speaker of the House, and the national debt now exceeds $20 trillion. But he’s pushing ahead with tax cuts that are likely to increase that figure by trillions more. And that’s only part of the story.
The GOP retreat from fiscal conservatism is twofold: The tax plan helps balloon federal deficits, and it does nothing to address the rising costs of entitlements as the population grows older and sicker.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget estimates that the proposed GOP House tax cuts would “result in debt reaching the size of the economy by 2028 and exceeding its post-World War II record a year or two later.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that even without those tax cuts, an aging population will push the deficit from 3.6% to 5.7% of the country’s economic output by 2017. Spending for mandatory programs will increase from $2.5 trillion in 2017 to $4.3 trillion in 2027, and interest payments on the national debt alone will double as a share of the GDP.
For years, conservatives bemoaned the greatest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history. Now it’s all about #winning.
Don’t get me wrong. For conservatives there is a lot to like in the tax bill, including a more competitive corporate tax rate. But even if you assume that the tax cuts will generate a burst of economic growth, the cuts are highly unlikely to pay for themselves. And no one, including conservative economists, believes we can simply grow our way out of the looming entitlement crisis described so vividly by Ryan.
But concern with deficits and debt is so last president. It’s really quite amazing what a single national election can do. During the Obama years, conservatives warned of the coming fiscal apocalypse. They stoked their perpetual outrage machine over deficits and debt, even shutting down the government.
Once in power, they discovered that the future is bright indeed, as long as they replay the GOP’s greatest hits from 1981 and 2002. Of course, the world has changed significantly since then and economic conditions are dramatically different (unemployment is low, the stock market is at record highs). But tax cuts are what Republicans do, apparently, regardless of the math.
It turns out that there has never been a strong constituency for the kind of tough budget cuts that would either limit the size of government or reduce the national debt. Indeed, even at the height of the tea party influence in Washington there was little support for entitlement reform.
A 2011 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that less than a quarter of Americans backed significant cuts to Social Security or Medicare. Self-declared tea party supporters said that significant cuts to Social Security were "unacceptable."
Two years later, a Pew poll found that fewer than 25% of the electorate favored cutting spending on healthcare, environmental protection, energy, scientific research, agriculture or “aid to the needy in the U.S.” Fewer than 20% favored retrenchments on roads and infrastructure, Medicare, crime fighting, food and drug inspection or disaster relief. A mere 10% favored decreased spending on education, Social Security or veterans’ benefits. Not even Republican voters had much appetite for spending cuts. Only 21% of Republicans said they wanted cuts in spending for Medicare, 15% wanted to decrease spending on education, and just 17% favored cuts in Social Security.
Obviously aware of those numbers, candidate Donald Trump promised gaudy new spending on infrastructure and a beautiful new border wall, but explicitly ruled out any entitlement reforms.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that, as he touts a massive tax cut, Paul Ryan doesn’t talk much about the catastrophic “debt crisis” anymore. But not talking about it doesn’t mean that it will go away; only that someone else will have to clean up the mess.
Charles J. Sykes is a former talk-show host in Wisconsin and the author of “How the Right Lost Its Mind.”