Mythology has it that “reckless Democratic spending” is to blame for the ballooning of the national debt — though the historical record shows otherwise.
In fact, the conservatives‘ beloved demi-god Ronald Reagan was the first President to skyrocket the debt, thanks to some bunk ideas from an old cocktail napkin that linger to this day — the Republican monetary theory in a nutshell is (I shit you not) that we should take all our pooled tax money and give it to… billionaires. Because, you know, they’re clearly the most qualified people to make decisions affecting the 99% poor people. Supposedly they’re the smartest folks to entrust with our money.
Except it’s not true, as year after year and study after study shows. Nor for all their finger-waggling at Democrats over the national debt has the GOP turned in a balanced budget since Nixon. Republicans are the most gigantic hypocrites on economics writ large, but particularly so for the national debt — with Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, and Trump all turning in record debt increases, primarily through tax cuts for the wealthy and the Gulf and Afghanistan wars.
Meanwhile, Bill Clinton balanced the budget, created a surplus, and reduced the debt during his 8 years in office, and Obama inherited the deepest recession since the 1929 Great Depression.
The financial crisis of 2008-09, itself caused by the reckless Republican zeal for deregulation — this time of financial derivatives — was a wholly GOP-owned debacle that the next president paid for politically. Nevertheless, President Obama had the debt again on a reduction path as a percentage of GDP — but then Donald “I bankrupted a series of casinos!” Trump oozed his way into the highest office in the land.
During the Trump administration, Republicans patted themselves on the back for giving a $2.7 trillion tax cut to billionaires for no reason, while the economy was relatively hot already (after being rescued by Obama). Not only was no progress made on diminishing the debt, but the national debt actually increased (both nominally and as a percentage of GDP) under Trump’s first term even before the sudden arrival of a novel coronavirus caused it to leap into the stratosphere like a 21st century American tech oligarch.
Only when President Biden arrived on the scene and took the helm of fiscal and monetary policy did the national debt begin cooling off once again — all while dramatically and quickly scaling up covid-19 vaccine production and distribution and passing over $3 trillion in Keynesian legislation meant to get the dregs of the middle class reoriented to a place on the map vis-a-vis the 1% once again.
Republican national debt bullshit
I am hereby calling bullshit on Republicans’ crocodile tears over the national debt, which they suddenly remember only when a Democrat is in town and summarily ignore while their guy is in the hot seat burning through cash like it’s going out of style.
We need to have a better collective narrative for Democratic success on the economy. The Republicans are no longer the kings of the economic world — if they ever were. It feels more like smoke and mirrors each passing day, with climate change denial, the Inflationary Boogeyman, and other GOP Greatest Hits playing ad nauseum on the AM social media waves.
Here are at least a few things to remember about the national debt, that Republicans generally get wrong:
- wars are very expensive
- booms in social services are expensive too; but not as expensive as wars
- there is not any perceivable truth in the old GOP party line that Democrats always overspend and Republicans are always thrifty
- be wary of graphs that don’t “normalize” to GNP — it’s an attempt to “lie with statistics” by obfuscating the roles of inflation and the growth of the economy itself
- there is more than one way to look at and evaluate the level of public debt
National Debt by President since the 20th century
|President||National Debt Change||Total National Debt|
|Taft||+$210 million||$2.13 billion|
|Wilson||+$21.5 billion||$23.5 billion|
|Harding/Coolidge||+$7.9 billion||$22.3 billion|
|Hoover||+$7.3 billion||$29.7 billion|
|F.D. Roosevelt||+$218.9 billion||$260.1 billion|
|Truman||+$7.5 billion||$256.6 billion|
|Eisenhower||+$23.2 billion||$272.8 billion|
|Kennedy/Johnson||+$54.9 billion||$311.9 billion|
|Nixon/Ford||+$371 billion||$698.1 billion|
|Carter||+$299 billion||$997.9 billion|
|Reagan||+$1.86 trillion||$2.86 trillion|
|G.H.W. Bush||+$1.55 trillion||$4.42 trillion|
|Clinton||+$1.40 trillion||$5.81 trillion|
|G.W. Bush||+$5.85 trillion||$10.71 trillion|
|Obama||+$8.59 trillion||$19.30 trillion|
|Trump||+$7.80 trillion||$27.10 trillion|
|Biden (as of March 2023)||+$3.00 trillion (projected)||$30.10 trillion (projected)|