Are the Deficits Forever?

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“The success of a party means little except when the nation is using that party for a large and definite purpose,” said Woodrow Wilson in his first inaugural. “No one can mistake the purpose for which the nation now seeks to use the Democratic Party.”

As with Wilson’s Democrats in 1913, so it is with the Republican Party today. It has been called to power for the “large and definite purpose” of halting the growth of government and putting the nation’s fiscal house in order. Whether it can succeed is another matter.

While a visitor to Capitol Hill the day the gavel was passed from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner could not miss the confident enthusiasm of the new Republican class for the assignment history has given it, the balance of power in this city weighs heavily against its success.

Consider. To bring the budget even close to balance in half a decade means cutting projected spending for Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. But any changes here have to be agreed to by Harry Reid’s Senate, and then by Barack Obama, who has a veto that the House Republicans have not a prayer of overriding.

And as Obama showed at year’s end when he agreed to a two-year extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts in return for payroll tax cuts of his own and new unemployment benefits, the White House will exact a high price for Obama’s signature.

As for cutting defense, if House Republicans have the kidney for that, they will have to overcome resistance from their own neocons, hawks and lobbyists for the military-industrial complex who are former Republican members of Congress.

Will farm-belt Republicans go along with cuts in agricultural subsidies? Will bricks-and-mortar boys go along with cuts in a federal highway program that is the legacy of GOP Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, who help finance the party, have programs inside that $3.5 trillion federal budget they wish to see protected. Will a Republican House, most of whose senior members have supped at their tables, bite the hand that holds the big envelopes?

And when it comes to cutting social programs — welfare, food stamps, the earned income tax credit, unemployment insurance, Pell grants, housing subsidies — the party of Nancy Pelosi and Reid, unreconciled to its repudiation, with the aid of the mainstream media, will paint the GOP as the hard right with hearts of titanium who deny the necessities of life to the neediest while defending tax cuts for millionaires.

Can the party stand the heat, or will it get out of the kitchen?

While Republicans in 2008 seemed to accept defeat as the just desserts of their own failings, the Democratic left acts as though it were cheated of power by an unscrupulous enemy. As Republicans and their families were celebrating in the Capitol, they were being roundly cursed on cable TV by Democrats and their allies.

This is not to counsel despair. It is to suggest that the true conservatives and Tea Party true believers who gave the GOP its victory in November have won a single major engagement in a long war whose outcome remains very much in doubt.

After all, FDR’s New Deal was never repealed. It was confirmed by President Eisenhower. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was never repealed. It was consolidated by Richard Nixon. Even Ronald Reagan conceded that he had failed to control federal spending, though he cut taxes and regulations. Then came Bush I and Bush II, both of whom were, in Fred Barnes’ description, “Big Government Conservatives.”

The federal government now spends close to 25 percent of the entire economy, a share not equaled since World War II, while the feds collect around 15 percent of gross domestic product in taxes.

Looking back over history, the growth of government seems inexorable, almost unstoppable. And, invariably, it is has been crises that bring it about.

World War I brought a vast expansion of government. But after Wilson’s war, the country turned to Republicans Warren Harding and Cal Coolidge, who cut income taxes and government back to where it consumed, when Silent Cal went home, about 3 percent of the gross national product.

The Depression, the New Deal and World War II led to the permanent expansion of government. And the postwar cuts in government never took it back to prewar levels, for the Cold War was suddenly upon us.

The end of the Cold War brought defense cuts, a peace dividend and balanced budgets under Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress, but Bush II and the neocons took care of that, with trillion-dollar tax cuts, trillion-dollar wars and trillion-dollar expansions in domestic spending.

Where, then, is the hope? It is here:

As Boehner put it, we can’t kick the can up the road anymore, because we’ve come to the end of the road. Like Greece and Portugal, Ireland and Illinois, New York and New Jersey, we have arrived at Hotel California.

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