Republicans have a potent issue to win over Independents and other swing voters in the 2010 congressional elections – the deficit. And the Democrats’ defense against deficit spending charges so far has been “Bush did it first.”
That “Bush did it first” blaming is certainly true. Bush’s Democratic predecessor eliminated the deficit, and Bush built it back up. Worse yet, Bush’s spending and tax cutting spree was during a time of prosperity, when economic stimulus wasn’t needed. So, it’s easy to see how grating it is for Democrats to be lectured by Republicans, of all people, about deficits.
But they can’t take the bait. While the “Bush did it first” message is truthful and cathartic, it makes them sound defensive and co-guilty of wrong-doing, and it is wholly insufficient to persuade Independents and other swing voters that Democrats can be trusted with the purse strings into the future.
Republicans are correct, a ballooning deficit is scary. But the lower-cost alternatives would have been much scarier. If Obama and congressional Democrats had not spent on financial industry bailouts, automaker bailouts, and stimulus funding, most experts say we would have had a total economic catastrophe that would dwarf what we experienced.
So, yes, we have a larger deficit, but the deficit spending mitigated a meltdown. Instead of a dramatically shrinking economy, we now have a modestly growing economy. Instead of no credit to fuel economic growth, we have some money flowing to businesses and individuals again. Instead of a stockmarket crash, we have a stockmarket rally. Instead of a housing collapse, we have signs of a modest housing recovery. Instead of hundreds of millions of more unemployed Americans from shuttered banks, insurance companies, automakers and small businesses dependent those central pillars of the economy, we now have economists predicting job growth early next year.
So the message framing for the deficit can’t be “Bush did it first.” It must be something more like “Deficits defeat Depressions.” Americans need to understand that President Hoover fixated on avoiding deficits at all cost, and that put us in the Great Depression, with failed banks, 30 percent unemployment, and breadlines. FDR chose short-term Keynesian deficit spending and it got us out of the Great Depression. Obama’s programs prevented a catastrophic financial meltdown too. Democrats made the wise choice during the meltdown, and now that the economy is recovering, Democrats will balance the budget again, as they did under Clinton.
Democrats have be direct with citizens and treat them like grown ups. They have to explain the Hoover-esque cost of doing nothing when money isn’t flowing. They have to explain that they hate deficits too, but show why deficit spending was a must with the economy in meltdown. Finally, and this is critical, they have to lay out a plan for cutting the deficit in the future, to show swing voters that they have a plan for getting us back to normal.
And in terms of tone, Democrats have to make this “deficits beat Depression” case proactively, not reactively. The have to proclaim it on offense, not on defense. They have to communicate that they are, like FDR and congressional New Dealers, supremely proud of what they achieved, not apologetic. They have to boast, not blame. Blaming others – tempting as it is — makes it sound like they are embarrassed and got caught doing something wrong. And if they carry that tone into the 2010 mid-term elections, it is going to be a butt ugly year for congressional Democrats.
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