Chief among the reasons McCain and others cite for the degradation of the Republican brand is the profligacy of the federal government under Republican stewardship. One of the planks of McCain’s economic platform is that he will eliminate unnecessary government expenditure by stopping “earmarks, pork-barrel spending, and waste.” In this, McCain would be an exception to his party’s general ideological shift away from sound fiscal management. In fact, the rise of the borrow-and-spend Republican is one of the major doctrinal changes in the political landscape of the last 25 years.
For Republicans, fiscal conservatism as defined by policies in support of lower spending and lower debt has been, since Reagan, nothing more than a rhetorical canard. Under Reagan, America began to accrue debt at an unprecedented rate during peacetime. It took the country from George Washington until Ronald Reagan to reach the first $1 trillion in debt. By the end of Reagan’s second term, the U.S. had moved from being a creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation, with national debt ballooning to 51% of GDP. After a continued run up under Bush the first and a dipduring the Clinton years, George W. Bush launched a series of massive tax cuts (without reciprocal cuts in spending) and a misguided war that has subsequently added more than three trillion to our national debt. The current total of $9.4 trillion equals more than 65% of GDP.
Given such basic financial misdeeds, Americans see Democrats as more trusted to deal with the economy than Republicans. Rasmussen Reports for June 2008 shows that on the number one issue of importance to Americans, the Economy, Democrats are trusted more than Republicans 52% to 39% – a spread of 13%, after Healthcare (favoring Dems by 20%) the second largest gap in their survey.
Now, of course, the national debt isn’t the only reason Americans have come to distrust Republicans to handle the economy. For one thing, a whole host of economic problems are reaching crisis levels just as we head into the home stretch of an election year. It is convenient to blame Republicans for this – and I do – but the mother of this crisis is manifold. In a sense, we are all to blame. That said, the borrow-and-spend narrative has been reinforced for so long now, across multiple Republican administrations, that it has become a defining feature of the party’s brand. Hear the phrase “tax-and-spend” Democrat and there is an immediate rejoinder.
So what does this mean for McCain as he tries to consolidate his fractured party and drag them across the finish line in November? Disaster, if the Dems play their cards right. It has become a cliché to say that they won’t, but I’m not betting against them. With an economy going as badly as ours, “borrow-and-spend” sounds a lot like the hole we’re already in.