Traditional Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge, Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush were not very exciting, but they were very responsible. They wanted to manage the government effectively and to live within our means. Those days are long gone. The GOP has metamorphosed from the preternaturally mature “Father Knows Best” party to the perpetually juvenile “Van Wilder” party. It wants to live it up, moon the grown-ups and dodge the consequences.
The transformation began during the Reagan administration. That was when supply-side economics (what Bush called “voodoo economics”) and unremitting hostility toward government (“the problem,” Ronald Reagan called it, “not the solution to our problem”) became the regnant party orthodoxy. Eschewing the staid, green-eye-shade accounting of Republicans past, the supply-siders argued that cuts in marginal income tax rates could pay for themselves. It did not, of course, happen. The Reagan tax cuts, which slashed the top rate from 70 percent to 28 percent, caused the deficit to nearly double, from $79 billion in 1981 to $153 billion in 1989. The fiscal situation would have been even worse if Reagan, who was far more responsible than his most fervent followers, had not signed tax increases in 1982, 1983 and 1984 that clawed back about half of the 1981 tax cut.
The deficit spending of the Reagan years was at least justified because it boosted the economy out of a deep recession and helped the armed forces recover from their post-Vietnam nadir. But the political success of Reagan’s tax cuts has mesmerized Republicans ever since, leading them to advocate steep tax cuts regardless of the circumstances.
In 2017, the Republican Congress passed, and Trump signed, a massive tax cut that delivered a sugar high to the economy that is already wearing off (2018 was the worst year for the stock market in a decade) while bequeathing debt that could take generations to pay off. As Bloomberg News notes: “Total public debt outstanding has jumped . . . by $1.9 trillion since President Donald Trump took office,” or “roughly the size of Brazil’s gross domestic product.”
The GOP’s proclivity for using government shutdowns to force through its agenda is another example of its drunken frat-boy antics. The three longest government shutdowns in U.S. history were all caused by Republican temper tantrums.
In 1995-1996, Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) shut down the government for 21 days to force President Bill Clinton, who was committed to a balanced budget, to accept steeper cuts in domestic spending than he wanted. That was a public-relations debacle that contributed to Gingrich’s downfall. In 2013, Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.) and his tea party allies forced a 17-day shutdown in a futile attempt to defund the Affordable Care Act. In both cases, Republicans were willing to halt the vital operations of the government and risk the creditworthiness of the United States to try to shove their ideological demands down the throat of a president who disagreed with them.
There is, to be sure, a long-standing problem with undocumented immigrants and drugs entering the United States, but spending, as Trump proposes, $5.7 billion to build an extra 200 miles of wall along a 2,000-mile border will not solve anything. Most drugs and roughly half of all undocumented immigrants arrive through legal ports of entry.
Trump has conjured an illusory solution to an imaginary crisis. But, having taken the country hostage, he and his Republican allies are inflicting real suffering on 800,000 federal workers and real danger on 325 million Americans. FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration officers, air traffic controllers and Coast Guard members are working without pay — or, as with a growing number of airport screeners, not working. Morale is plunging and financial worries rising among the men and women charged with keeping us safe.
A party that felt an iota of responsibility to the country would be alarmed by these developments and would reopen the government even if it meant overriding the president’s veto. But for the drunken frat-boy party, the damage inflicted by its ideological bender is no reason to sober up. Indeed, for the most antigovernment Republicans, the shutdown is a feature, not a bug, because it is shrinking, at least for a few weeks, the size of the government. The Republicans of yesteryear would send today’s Republicans to their rooms without any supper.