President Barack Obama's State of the Union address was not a "Sputnik moment." It was more like a failed rocket launch. There were rhetorical flashes and engine noises, but no lift, no way out of the mess we are in. What's going on?
The president and both parties were in silent agreement that the huge, unsustainable projected deficits could not be addressed by raising taxes. Democrats believe it would be political suicide, and Republicans won control of the House on an anti-tax agenda.
So it looks like the Republicans have finally won the war against "big" government launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1980. They can now say: The American people simply can't afford many of the government services to which we've grown accustomed. We need to make "painful" cuts — every honest grown-up in the country should be able to see this.
In the Republican response to Obama's speech, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin accused Democrats of turning "our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency." We need more self-reliance and less government.
Obama tried to sound like he was facing up to the deficit problem. He said "We need to take responsibility for our deficit and reform our government." He proposed a 10-year freeze on discretionary domestic spending which would save $400 billion.
However, this would be only a small fraction of the nearly $7.6 trillion in total deficits projected by the Congressional Budget Office for the same period. He also mentioned a $78 billion reduction in projected defense spending over the next five years — another drop in the bucket.
In short, Obama had very little to say about reducing unsustainable deficits. In fact, he even hinted at additional discretionary spending that would add to the deficit. He recommended government "investments" in research, education and infrastructure:
"Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine." This was a great laugh line, but he didn't say how these "investments" square with "taking responsibility for our deficit."
So what exactly are Republicans prepared to do to about the looming fiscal disaster, now that they finally have Big Government by the throat? We need to look carefully at what they propose, because their record on deficit spending since Reagan took office in 1980 is bad.
Under Reagan, large deficits nearly tripled the national debt from $907 billion in 1980 to $2.6 trillion in 1988. When George W. Bush initiated massive tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 while starting two wars, the resulting deficits raised the national debt from $5.8 trillion in 2001 to $10 trillion in 2008.
The GOP isn't really about fiscal responsibility. Sure, Republicans often worry out loud about deficit spending while keeping a solemn face. But their hearts are set on something else: the drastic reduction of social programs.
What they have done since 1980 is "cut and spend" — cutting taxes without equal cuts in government spending. Two unfunded wars have done a lot to bring the government to the point where further borrowing is politically and fiscally unsustainable. Now they feel safe in going after the popular social programs responsible for our culture of "dependency."
Or do they? Republican leaders seem afraid to take the next step and actually target specific programs. Ryan and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have each put forward plans for substantial cuts in social programs.
But these have not been endorsed by their leaders. (In a Jan. 29 editorial, this paper pointed out the drastic consequences for Kentuckians of Paul's agenda.)
If Obama and the Democrats had enough vision and courage, they could point out that the choice between ruinous deficits and slashed social programs is a false dilemma.
The Congressional Research Service and the CBO estimate the total cost of extending all the Bush tax cuts over the next 10 years at around $5 trillion.
Ending them after a year or two and going back to the tax rates during the prosperous Clinton era would remove a large chunk of the projected deficits. If we also make income tax rates a bit more progressive (as they were before Reagan), we could end the red ink.
Is the GOP worried that Americans might actually want to pay for social insurance?