Are Republicans hypocrites for caring about the deficit? Maybe. But that's OK.
The tricky thing about cries of hypocrisy in a two-party system is that the accusation almost always cuts both ways. The Democrats say "cats are the best!" and the Republicans say "dogs rule!" A couple of elections later, the Democrats suddenly discover they need dogs more than cats and switch positions. Republicans immediately whine about Democratic hypocrisy, even as they meet with important members of the feline community to say, "See, the Democrats are abandoning you. We have room for cats in the GOP's big tent." This in turn causes Democrats to vent their spleens about the GOP's own hypocrisy, reminding voters of the Republican Party's long history of indifference to the litter-box-using community.
The same dynamic can be found in debates about any number of issues, from race relations and foreign policy to trade and Supreme Court appointments. The parties, and their partisans, switch sides like boys and girls at a square dance and then shout "hypocrite!" at each other from either side of the political barn.
Perhaps nowhere is that more true than the typically soporific issue of budget deficits. For decades, Republicans were the budget hawks, green eyeshades firmly in place, deploring the profligate habits of liberal Democrats who cared too little about deficit spending. Then, as the Reagan deficits ballooned (with the aid of a fiscally promiscuous Democratic Congress) the right started caring less about deficit spending, while the left suddenly saw an opportunity to rehabilitate its image as bleeding-heart hippies spending somebody else's money.
By the 1990s, the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton managed to fashion itself into the party of responsible budget hawks while Republicans were branded as the party that didn't care about debt if tax cuts were on the line. By 2002, Dick Cheney allegedly said in a private conversation (he denies it) that "deficits don't matter." And throughout the George Bush years, Democrats screamed bloody murder about W's rivers of red ink.
Now Barack Obama is president and the deficit do-si-do begins anew. Suddenly, leading liberals are less concerned about the deficit while Republicans are fretting about the "intergenerational theft" of borrowing trillions from our children and grandchildren. In response, Democrats say Republicans can't complain about the deficit because they didn't care about deficits very much when Bush was president. Republicans, in turn, say Democrats are hypocrites because throughout the Bush years, they had complained about Bush's out-of-control deficits.
Now, part of the problem is that neither side actually much cares about deficits qua deficits. The Democrats didn't like what Bush was borrowing money to spend on, chiefly the war and, by Democratic accounting, his tax cuts. Similarly, the Republicans don't like the idea of going deeper into hock for corporate bailouts, the deeply flawed stimulus and, possibly, socialized medicine.
A larger problem, however, is that the hypocrisy hoedown gives the impression that everybody simply gets a turn at fueling America's runaway debt. And as fair as that might seem according to schoolyard logic, the trouble is that with every new turn, the situation gets worse.
In 1981, when America's accumulated debt was creeping up on $1 trillion, President Reagan explained in his first address to Congress, "I've been trying … to think of a way to illustrate how big a trillion really is. And the best I could come up with is that if you had a stack of $1,000 bills in your hand only 4 inches high, you'd be a millionaire. A trillion dollars would be a stack of $1,000 bills 67 miles high."
Obama's budget will have, for the first time, a single year deficit of $1 trillion and, according to the Obama administration's own projections, the same stack will be over 600 miles high ($9 trillion) at the end of 10 years, and that might be optimistic. Obama's 2009 budget deficit will be greater than all of the Bush deficits from 2002 to 2007 combined, according to the Heritage Foundation's Brian Riedl. And none of this takes into account that Obama's health care ambitions, nevermind cap and trade, could swell the deficit much more, if realized. Nor does it take into account the fact that unless the economy revives, tax revenues will continue to plummet as they have been (this year saw the greatest drop-off of receipts since 1932), which would make the shortfall even worse.
All that debt will need to be paid off. Every dollar going toward debt cannot be invested in a new business, a school or a weapons program. At least not in America. The Chinese might take some of the return on American bonds and invest it.
Are Republicans hypocrites for suddenly caring about all of this? Sure, OK. But that doesn't make them wrong. Just as suddenly not caring about any of it doesn't make the Democrats right.