A seven-hundred-billion-dollar bailout plan? Weren't Republicans supposed to be opposed to deficit spending? Weren't they the party that was all about balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility?
That's what Republicans say, of course. And now they tell us they wish they didn't have to take this course; that the bailout violates their own first principles; that they're so, so sorry. But none of this is true. At some point in the first Reagan administration, Washington conservatives (as opposed to your average conservative pundit or grassroots activist) learned to stop worrying and love public debt. Maybe that first, gigantic deficit the Reaganites piled up was an accident, just a combination of deluded "supply side" tax cuts and a huge bag of good stuff for the Pentagon. But pretty quickly conservatives discovered that deficits, when done correctly, did something really cool: deficits defunded the left.
For one thing, deficits gave the Reaganites an enormous weapon to wield against their enemies in Congress and the executive branch. Having to pay down the debt was the excuse for "reductions in force" in agencies detested by conservatives; it was the rationale for attacks on this liberal program and that; and it was--believe it or not--the original justification for the trademark conservative innovation of outsourcing and privatizing public operations, an innovation that has, as we now know, turned out to be one of the most fantastic money-burning frauds ever conceived by the mind of man.
And then, of course, the whole thing was dumped in the lap of the incoming president Bill Clinton in 1993. The story is so famous it borders on legend: One fine day, after being briefed by his economic team, Clinton realized that, thanks to the deficit, he would not be able to enact most of the economic program he had been promising voters throughout the campaign. He cursed. He screamed. He referred to it as "Stockman's revenge," after President Reagan's budget director (whose memoirs are an invaluable account of conservative thinking about deficits). And, of course, he did as the situation bade him: he balanced the budget and ruled like a nice, responsible Republican.
When done right--or wrong, depending on how you look at it--deficits remove liberal options from the table. Suddenly there's no money for building bridges or inspecting meat. Not surprisingly, running up a deficit is a strategy favored by the wrecking crew for its liberal-killing properties.
But seven hundred billion dollars, all of it to make Wall Street whole again after it cheated and deceived itself into its worst crisis in seventy-five years? Add this to the already enormous deficit Bush piled up by sluicing waves of public money down the pipe to whatever contractor has the best lobbyists, and you're talking deficit Armageddon.
And with a deficit that size, what a lot of defunding we'll have! Perhaps your individual share of the bailout will be manageable, but its larger effects will take much more from you than you think: public schools, workplace safety, health care reform all might well be sacrificed.
These gratifying effects are already being acknowledged. On Tuesday Barack Obama recognized that the bailout may crowd out some of the programs he's been promising on the campaign trail. Yes, I know that something has to be done to avoid Great Depression II; I know we have no choice in the matter; and I don't even have a problem with deficit spending in the abstract. But it seems to me that the combined result of all this might be to compel even Obama into acting like a Republican.