Chart of the Day: When Do Republicans Care About the Deficit?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 27 2014 1:25 PM

Chart of the Day: When Do Republicans Care About the Deficit?

The big news from Pew's annual pre-State of the Union poll is that deficit hawks have been booted out of the nest. Deficit angst surged from 2009 to 2013, peaking that year when 72 percent of people said reducing the annual government cost overruns was a "top priority." Today, only 63 percent of people think that. The drop, as Pew notes, is led by Democrats.

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So, what else do we notice in this chart? Debt panic peaked, overall, in the year of the Gingrich revolution, and in the Obama years. Independents were fairly consistent in their panic, settling down when the government was running a surprlus, calming down a lot more after 9/11, but regaining interest once the costs of the Iraq War mounted. Democrats—same pattern, deficit panic peaking in the middle of the Bush presidency, staying fairly consistent until this year.

And then we have the Republicans. The national debt actually grew by $5.1 trillion during the Bush years. Republicans did not panic: They were as concerned with the deficit in 2009 as they were in 2001. Then Obama took over, and the collapse of tax revenue plus the one-time surge in stimulus spending caused a massive spike in the debt. Republicans panicked, and stayed panicked. At least some of this can be explained by who's in the White House.

The current, popular thinking among liberals is that Obama's the only thing keeping conservatives on Team Fix the Debt. I think these liberals should have more conversations with House Republicans, who are deathly afraid of a national collapse along the lines of Greece's. But a chart like this should restore confidence that, come 2017, if President Rubio pursued Bush-like stimulus plus low-tax policies, the Republican base would deal with it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.