Four years ago, with total aplomb, George W. Bush faced the nation and argued that if he were not reelected, all notions of "fiscal sanity" would be gone in Washington, DC. The notion of this president as the boy who held his finger in the fiscal dike would be comical if it were not so tragic.
Four years later, the nation's economy lies in shambles. Still, with an economic plan that offers more and deeper tax cuts, and no grasp of the consequences of continuing down the same path, John McCain is clinging to the Republican Brand. Hoping that some of its old magic endures.
Not since George H.W. Bush almost thirty years ago attacked Ronald Reagan's proposed tax cuts as Voodoo Economics has a national Republican leader stood up for the most basic tenets of Republican doctrine. Or what once was Republican doctrine.
In the 1980 contest between Bush and Reagan, the Republican Party formally turned away from any substantive commitment to fiscal responsibility because, as Grover Norquist -- the founder of American's for Tax Reform and one of the architects of the contemporary Republican coalition -- likes to point out, the constituency that votes on the basis of balanced budgets is small -- generally the old money and Wall Street set -- and can be bought by a commitment to cutting taxes.
When Ronald Reagan took office, the public debt stood at $712 billion. Twelve years later, it had increased more than four-fold to $3.2 trillion. Under Bill Clinton's watch, the increase was a mere $70 billion in eight years, or 2%. When George W. Bush took office, the public debt stood at $3.3 trillion. This year, it stands at $5.4 trillion, and increase of 64%.
Still today, Republicans claim the principles of fiscal responsibility as their own, and decry Democratic profligacy. But what data are they looking at? Coca Cola was once sold as a health elixir, but the evidence would prove otherwise. Where is the truth in advertising that adheres to the most basic areas of civic choice?
Today, any semblance of the historic identity of the Republican Party has been sundered. Based on Concord Coalition data, the total fiscal burden -- including public debt and future unfunded entitlements -- on each American totals $175,000, or $455,000 on each household. Eight years ago, these amounts were $72,500 per person, or $188,750 on each household. Therefore, the price of the past eight years -- of tax cuts and massive increases in spending--has been over $100,000 per person, or $265,000 per family.
$265,000 per family. Enough to put four kids through the average public university, but instead just a burden on America's future.
Compare these numbers to per capita income of $33,250 and median family income of just over $50,000. Consider the real struggle that most families face to put kids through college, and the ease with which this new $265,000 obligation has been foisted on those same families.
The simple fact is that in 1982 the Republican Party walked away from fiscal responsibility, as it fell prey to -- in the words of long-time Republican wise man Pete Peterson -- the unholy alliance of tax-cutting and big spending Republicans, and their grip on the Party is as tight as ever.
Where is John McCain's political courage today? How is he putting the Country First today when he trades away his once-valued integrity for votes, even as his plans will foist an ever greater fiscal burden on the country's future, with literally trillions of dollars in tax cuts and nothing to pay for them but $18 billion of earmarks?
Nonetheless, over the remaining weeks to the election, John McCain will pull the old horse out of the barn for one more run around the track. He will claim the Republican mantle of fiscal responsibility with the full-throated enthusiasm of either a naïf or a craven opportunist.
But will people finally notice that the horse is dead, or will the depth of the Republican brand still have enough juice to offer the voters succor one last time?
As Americans sit around the kitchen table, will they understand that the $265,000 that they have taken on in the last eight years is the price they will have to pay for failing to challenge those who prey on their optimism and their patriotism?
Will they understand that every tax cut and war and entitlement comes with a price and that none of the goodies that they are offered are ultimately paid for by anyone but themselves?
And will they understand that unless they stop accepting the easy answers, the price tag the next time around is only going to be higher?