Show Hide image

Republicans only care about debt when there’s a Democrat in the White House

Early forecasts for Trump’s 2019 federal budget claim the deficit will nearly double to $984bn.

Donald Trump bankrupted his companies six times. He bragged that he was the “king of debt”. He entered office owing more than $1bn to 150 institutions. So should we really be surprised to discover that the president of the United States was only pretending to be a fiscal conservative?

On 12 February, the Trump White House unveiled a $4.4trn federal budget for 2019 that, according to Bloomberg, forecasts the deficit “nearly doubling… to $984bn. The red ink would total $7.1trn over the next decade, the national debt would rise to nearly $30trn, and the budget would not balance.”

Members of the US press corps have been falling over one another to point out what a supposedly dramatic departure this is from “the traditional Republican economic catechism”. The president, observed the Washington Post, “is remaking the Republican economic playbook in his own image, abandoning ideological consistency in ­favour of a debt-busting strategy”. “Republicans learn to love deficit spending they once loathed,” was the headline in the New York Times.

Yet Trump is no aberration; nor is he an outlier in his party. The reality is that there has never been any kind of “ideological consistency” in favour of balanced budgets or “loathing” of deficit spending on the part of the GOP. Rather, Republicans cynically scream about debts and deficits when a Democrat is in the White House, only to then run up much bigger debts and deficits once a Republican takes over the top job.

Consider the historical record. Except for Barack Obama, who entered office in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, every single Democratic president of the postwar period (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton) has reduced the national debt as a proportion of GDP. In stark contrast, none of the Republican presidents since Richard Nixon left office in 1974 – Ford, Reagan, Bush Sr, Bush Jr – have been able to do the same.

The debt tripled under Ronald Reagan and doubled under George W Bush. Budget deficits also ballooned on their watch – thanks to a combination of unfunded tax cuts and a ramping up of military spending (sound familiar?). In fact, over the past 50 years, the only US president who succeeded in balancing the budget was a Democrat: Bill Clinton.

So Trump is following in the footsteps of his GOP predecessors, aided and abetted in his “debt-busting strategy” by congressional Republicans. The shamelessness of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker Paul Ryan, in particular, has been a sight to behold.

During the Obama era, the two men postured as deficit hawks, constantly lambasting the Democrats for their alleged fiscal irresponsibility. In 2010, McConnell claimed that “the kind of spending and debt Democrats are engaged in… is like nothing this country has ever seen. And it threatens not only the livelihoods of our children; it threatens our national security.” In 2012, Ryan said a “debt crisis is staring us in the face” and suggested the United States could go the way of Greece.

These days, though, McConnell, Ryan and the vast majority of their GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill have not a word to say about the astonishing pace at which Trump is racking up red ink. Instead, they are eager accomplices, joining with the president to pass a huge tax cut in December that, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, will add a whopping $1.4trn to the national debt over the next decade.

Remember: there is nothing new to this Republican scam. Reagan administration officials back in the 1980s called it “starving the beast”: cut taxes on the rich; increase spending on defence; force up borrowing levels; and then insist on savage cuts to social spending to balance the books. It’s all a big con. They don’t actually care about the deficit; to quote Dick Cheney, speaking in private during the first term of the Bush Jr presidency, “deficits don’t matter”.

Am I being unfair? Listen to GOP senator Rand Paul, a hero to the anti-debt Tea Party. “I can’t in all good honesty, in all good faith, just look the other way just because my party is now complicit in the deficits,” Paul told his fellow senators on 8 February, referring to a Republican spending bill that he called “the very definition of intellectual dishonesty”.

So what should the Democrats’ response be? Mocking the Republicans for their inconsistency and double standards is a good start. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi suggested the “poor deficit hawk” has become “if not an endangered species, extinct, because the Republicans only seem to care about the deficit when it comes time to invest in people. Not when it comes time to give giveaways to corporate America and the wealthiest.”

Yet Democrats cannot afford to box themselves into a fiscal corner by obsessing over the deficit. Why would they want to tie the hands of a future president from their party? Especially when polls show that most Americans don’t care much about the deficit, and recent history demonstrates that none of the deficit doomsayers’ predictions – a rapid rise in interest rates, the collapse of the dollar, a Greek-style meltdown – came to pass.

For Democrats to try to take up the mantle of debt reduction now would be an act of political and economic self-harm. They should slam the Republicans for being hypocrites. But then they should borrow Cheney’s line. Deficits don’t matter. It’s what you use them for that matters. Trump’s budget may have provided Democrats with the ideal opportunity to finally say in public what Republicans have long said in private. 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.