05/17/2012 08:34 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

Because They Can

It seems as if the Republicans, meaning both John Boehner and Mitt Romney, are trying to turn the national debt back into a major political issue. Now, a visitor from Mars might wonder how this is possible. How could a party that (a) passed the massive tax cuts that were the single largest legislative contributor to today's record deficits, (b) increased spending rapidly the last time it controlled the federal government, and (c) cannot talk in detail about anything except deficit-increasing tax cuts possibly think that calling attention to deficits could be a political winner?

Well, despite the Republican Party's abysmal record when it comes to fiscal responsibility, it could still turn out to be smart politics, for a few reasons. One is that many Americans reflexively associate large deficits with excessive spending, even though reductions in tax revenues have played just as big a role since George W. Bush became president. (Compare, for example, receipts and outlays in 2000 and 2011 as a percentage of GDP.) Then they associate excessive spending with Democrats, although the only president to reduce spending significantly in the past forty years was Bill Clinton. It turns out that if you repeat the same tired attack lines year after year -- Democrats are all tax and spend liberals, for example -- people believe them.

The other, more important reason why Republicans like talking about the national debt is that Democrats don't have a good response. Sure, Democrats have lots of policy proposals, and theirs make a good deal more sense than the Republicans'; it was President Obama who proposed trillions of dollars in spending cuts and tax increases, which is what people supposedly want (according to opinion surveys, at least).

But most Democrats just don't like talking about deficits and the national debt. They think it's a distraction from talking about jobs and unemployment, or they think simply broaching the subject is succumbing to a vast right-wing conspiracy to slash entitlements, or both. The result is that there is no liberal progressive position on the national debt. There's the Republican one (Romney, Boehner, Ryan), which is to cut taxes (boggle); and there's the Obama one, which is basically the Republican-Lite position of George H. W. Bush, and which many liberal Democrats run away from. On the left, all there is is a vague belief that you can balance the budget by increasing taxes on the rich, but no one really wants to come out and say it. (Also, the numbers don't add up unless you're willing to boost the tax rates on millionaires to very high levels; just, say, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the rich won't cut it.) Instead, the strategy is to demonize RyanCare, which is effective as a short-term tactic, but doesn't really amount to a coherent message on the national debt.

This is one reason why I wrote White House Burning. I say "I" because Simon probably wouldn't call himself a liberal, but I do call myself a liberal, and I think liberals need to have a coherent message on the national debt. I think the message should be something like this: the national debt is a real problem that needs to be addressed; we need to address it in the way that's best for the American people as a whole; that means preserving the social insurance programs that almost everyone depends on; and we can preserve those programs, while bringing the debt under control, through a set of policy changes that make sense on their own grounds (eliminating distorting subsidies, eliminating tax expenditures, introducing Pigovian taxes like a carbon tax and a financial activities tax).

You don't have to agree with our recommendations. But as long as the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has nothing to say about the national debt, conservatives will be free to lead the debate, and the most likely outcome will be some sort of compromise between the moderate Republican Barack Obama an the now-"severe" conservative Mitt Romney. And you can expect the Republicans to bang on this drum from now until November.

James Kwak is the co-author of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters To You, available from April 3rd. This post is cross-posted from The Baseline Scenario. Read more from the Fiscal Affairs series here.