The Magazine

The New Stupid Party

The Gephardt Democrats' slow, Social Security-induced suicide.

Sep 10, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 48 • By DAVID BROOKS
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LONG AGO, the Republican party was nicknamed the Stupid Party, and at times Republicans have done their best to live up to the label. But after the past week, it is perhaps time to acknowledge that when it comes to brainless, self-destructive behavior, the Democratic party has achieved a level of excellence that will be unsurpassed in our lifetime.

Last week the Congressional Budget Office came out with a budget forecast. The report immediately got submerged in a chatterstorm about whether Congress or the White House would dip into something called the Social Security trust fund, but the essential facts are these: The CBO economists estimated that the federal government will run a surplus of about $150 billion in 2001. That’s a lower surplus than the CBO estimated a few months ago, before the economic slowdown, the Bush tax cut, and the recent congressional spending splurge. But even in these adverse circumstances, the surplus is still projected to grow to about $200 billion a year in 2004 and close to $300 billion a year by 2006.

The Democratic party proceeded to work itself up into a collective aneurysm. Dick Gephardt—who, when given the chance to play the demagogue, never goes halfway—said that the United States now faces "an alarming fiscal crisis." Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe said on Face the Nation that it had taken Bill Clinton eight years to build up the surplus, but Bush was able to "blow it in eight months." Other Democrats rose up en masse to declare that the Bush administration was going to bankrupt Social Security/the federal government/western civilization because the administration was going to have to "raid the Social Security trust fund."

Now the press, which loves a crisis, no matter how bogus, played along. The graphic artists at USA Today ran a front page chart purporting to show that the federal surplus is now gone. It was left to a few more sophisticated writers, like former Clinton Office of Management and Budget staffer Matthew Miller, to remind everyone that the trust fund is an accounting fiction. When the government takes in surplus money, it doesn’t matter whether you call it a Social Security surplus or a Medicare surplus or a beer bash trust fund, it all gets used the same way: to pay down outstanding debt. What matters, as far as the economy or the federal government’s long-term solvency is concerned, is the government’s total indebtedness. By that perspective, especially compared with the budgets of the past 20 years, America’s fiscal house is in pretty decent shape.

One could have a rational argument about all of this. Bush critics could point out that in the years before the first baby boomer retirements, you want to see the government retiring as much debt as possible. Bush defenders could then respond that in shaky economic times, you want to stimulate the economy with a tax cut, even if it means lower surpluses in the short term, because a revived economy will eventually produce more revenue. The critics could then come back by pointing out that the Bush tax cut is poorly designed for that sort of stimulus.

But that would be a reasonable debate.

Suffering from Post-Florida Stress Disorder, the leaders of the Democratic party are in no condition for that sort of dialogue. They apparently feel some need to prove that Bush is evil and that his tax cut is the worst crime perpetrated this side of Jack the Ripper. So the Democrats launched a war of bar charts, all designed to show that the Bush administration had blown the deficit in a flurry of greed.

If you closed your eyes last week and listened to the hysterical charges coming from Democratic mouths, and to the sound of the shuffling press conference props, you might have thought that Ross Perot had taken over the Democratic party. But even if he was a little wacky, Perot at least hyperventilated about deficits when the U.S. government was actually running them. Dick Gephardt et al. are hyperventilating about fiscal rectitude in a time of surpluses.

And in working themselves up into a Perotvian lather, the Democrats have emerged as rabid budget hawks. Surpluses are sacred. The higher the better. Anything that reduces the size of the surplus is an immoral money grab. The ranking Democrat on the House Budget committee, John Spratt, actually held a press conference in which he said that the purpose of the budget process is to keep the fiscal balances of the country healthy. The party that once believed that the purpose of government is to help people now believes that the purpose of the people is to help the government hoard cash. The party that once believed in Keynesian pump-priming has now signed on to an agenda that includes building up massive surpluses during a possible recession.