09/07/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2012

The Mess an Elephant Leaves Behind

As Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan roll out the "Management Consultants 2012!" tour, and as the Koch Brothers prepare to spend millions on an ad campaign blaming the national debt on President Obama, Republicans are making deficits and the debt central to their campaign.

Honest people can disagree over the threat the debt poses to the nation (economists keep telling us the price of selling bonds will inevitably rise -- except right now the opposite is happening), and they can disagree over how best to bring it down.

Whatever we might do about the debt in the future, however, we should be clear about how we got to this point, or rather who got us to this point. As Team Romney tries to portray the GOP as the party of fiscal responsibility, history would beg to differ.

Let's review some of that history.

The national debt remained relatively flat and relatively small from the end of World War Two until the 1980s. Through Republican presidents and Democratic ones. It stayed flat even during the heyday of the "big government" 1960s.

Then it skyrocketed. In eight years, President Ronald Reagan watched the debt grow over 175 percent. When Reagan entered the White House, the United States was a creditor nation; by the time he left we were the world's largest debtor nation.

The bulk of that debt (accrued from his annual budget deficits) came from the combination of Reagan's tax cuts and his massive defense spending which grew just over 10 percent each year. This fiscal fiasco prompted David Stockman, Reagan's whiz-kid budget director, to resign in disgust in 1985.

Under George H. W. Bush the debt grew a more modest 55 percent in four years. Bush, of course, promised America "No new taxes" in one of those moments of blustering campaign bravado that always made the patrician figure uncomfortable. Then he raised taxes because he recognized the need for increased revenue, and he was punished for it brutally in the election of 1992. That was just about the last fiscally honest thing a Republican in Washington has done.

President Clinton managed to achieve a balanced budget and a budget surplus by the time he left office. And the national debt grew about 35 percent. Republicans have gone to almost gymnastic lengths to explain why Clinton doesn't really deserve credit for his management of the nation's finances (or for the tremendous economic growth we experienced). The fact remains, however, that when Clinton left Washington, he had begun to pay down the national debt for the first time in roughly a generation.

Balanced budgets, budget surpluses and fiscal discipline disappeared once George W. Bush moved to Washington. Bush's formula for fiscal mess was much the same as Reagan's: big tax cuts and run-away military spending, this time on two unfunded wars. And as a result the debt grew by 85 percent.

Let's put some numbers to Bush's policies: the consensus among most economists is that the Bush tax cuts have cost us $2.8 trillion in lost revenue. President Bush promised that his tax cuts would create 5.5 million jobs by the end of 2004. In fact, only 2.7 million jobs were created during those four years, considerably fewer even than the 4.1 million the administration acknowledged would probably be added to the economy without the tax cuts. (No point in playing a blame game, but let's be clear: Bush thought the economy would add 4.1 million jobs; then he invented the tax cuts, and 1.5 million of those jobs failed to materialize.)

Add to that $2.8 trillion the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- now in the $1.5 trillion range -- and you have a pretty significant part of the national debt.

The debt has certainly grown during President Obama's first three years, but more in the George H. W. Bush/Bill Clinton range, than in the Reagan/W range. Some of that growth is attributable to spending, like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; more of it, according the Congressional Budget Office, is attributable to the lost revenue that came with The Great Recession, and to those two wars which are only now winding down.

Despite the evidence of the last 30+ years, however, Republicans want to sell the idea that they are the party best equipped to handle the nation's finances, never mind all this history. Worse than that, the GOP is offering exactly the same economic formula that created the current debt problem in the first place: more spending on the military, more tax cuts for the wealthiest. What's that old definition of crazy? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

But don't take my word for it. In a 2009 interview David Stockman, wiser but no less bitter than he was in 1985, put it more bluntly: "The Republican Party has totally abdicated its job in our democracy, which is to act as the guardian of fiscal discipline and responsibility. They're on an anti-tax jihad -- one that benefits the prosperous classes."

Who's ready to jump on the Management Consultant bus?

Steven Conn is Professor of History at Ohio State University and the editor of the new book "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government." He also edits the on-line magazine "Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective."