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The Democrats' Debt Dilemma

A self-inflicted wound.

12:00 AM, Oct 22, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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Democrats face a growing political crisis with federal spending and debt, a self-inflicted quandary they created in some obvious and non-obvious ways.

Enacting a massive stimulus bill that failed to produce economic growth and tax revenue contributed to this predicament. Not a lot of bang for the bucks.

But President Obama and his allies in Congress now face another, less foreseen dilemma. Ironically, it was Obama and his party that stoked these fiscal concerns over the last eight years. As a result, worries about spending and debt are now a bipartisan pastime. It wasn't always that way.

Twenty years ago Democrats in Washington rarely fretted about budgetary largess. True, some liberals railed against too much defense spending. But Republicans routinely expressed more worries about spending, debt and deficits. "To the extent that the level of federal debt was an issue in politics, Republicans, not Democrats, talked about it," Tony Blankley, who worked in the Reagan Administration and for Speaker Newt Gingrich, told me.

George W. Bush and his political opponents in Washington changed all that. During the eight years of his presidency, Democrats discovered a new issue: bludgeoning Republicans for "fiscal irresponsibility." A new line of attack was born. A Medicare bill that wasn't paid for, tax cuts that added to the deficit, and massive spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, were all examples of Republican fiscal profligacy. Democrats reminded Americans about this fiscal recklessness every day. Attacking federal spending and raising concerns about debt became part of the anti-Bush arsenal.

And many took the message to heart. Democratic rank-in-file and independent voters responded to the new line of assault from party elites in Washington. Surveys leading up to the 2006 and 2008 elections found independents trusted Democrats more than Republicans on issues related to controlling federal spending and managing fiscal policy. Democratic House members posted placards outside their offices in the Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn office buildings in 2007 and 2008 lamenting the burgeoning federal debt--a malady brought about by George W. Bush and Republicans in Congress. And even now with Democrats firmly controlling Congress and the White House, a June 2009 Gallup poll revealed 75 percent of self-identified Democrats say they are very worried about the federal budget deficit.

The new Democratic obsession with fiscal restraint was jarring for many long-time Washington observers and Republican activists. How could the party routinely labeled as the "tax and spend" liberals say these things with a straight face? It was like Paris Hilton joining the Sisters of the Poor.

Yet the constant barrage of Democratic rhetoric had an impact on public opinion. Concerns about spending, deficits and debt are now shared among a broad swath of the electorate. This wasn't always the case. A little over a decade ago sharper partisan differences existed about deficit spending, according to the 1996 American National Election Study. In that study, a majority of self-identified Democrats (56 percent) said they favored "increasing the deficit in order to increase domestic spending"--more than twice the percentage among Republicans.

So the tide has turned. Debt and spending are not only more salient, but fiscal issues are important to voters of both parties.

What's unclear is whether the president and his allies in Congress understand how to navigate these new waters. Based on their policies to date, the answer is no. Obama and the Democrats seem overleveraged--a political posture increasingly out of step with most Americans.

While most households and businesses are doing more with less--paying down debt, scaling back, and sacrificing--Democrats move against these currents. More spending, a pricey health care bill, cap and trade, maybe even another "stimulus" bill.

The president and many Democratic lawmakers fail to grasp that their constituents listened to and believed them in the last two campaigns. Maybe we are spending too much. Maybe unprecedented levels of debt will cripple the economy and cause more job loss. Maybe someone in Washington ought to do something about it before it's too late.

We now face a fiscal apocalypse. Democrats control all the levers of power in Washington, and voters of both parties want leadership and results. When it comes to spending and debt, Obama and his allies cannot ignore the seeds they've sown. They can't say, "Just kidding."

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington, D.C., and a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.