Quick: Of the presidents who have served over the past 50 years, who were the most fiscally restrained? Ronald Reagan? George H.W. Bush? Gerald Ford? No. Annual spending growth, in fact, was slowest under Bill Clinton. Democrats and others may remember that balancing the federal budget in the 1990s didn't stifle the economy; just the opposite. It helped fuel an era of prosperity.
But 19 Democratic presidential candidates, who gathered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last weekend to make their cases, are not feeling nostalgic for the achievements of the Clinton presidency -- particularly those that require frugality.
None showed any interest in damming the torrents of red ink gushing in Washington. They are in the mood to lavish federal dollars on a wide range of worthy purposes, without getting too hung up on where that money would come from.
Rep. Eric Swalwell urged Democrats to "go big," advice akin to telling NASA to fly high. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the most expansive of the group, promising to "cancel student loan debt for 43 million Americans," "provide universal pre-K for every one of our kids" and "create 1.2 million new manufacturing jobs."
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard vowed to divert trillions that have been spent on wars to finance "quality health care for all, truly sustainable agriculture, affordable housing, clean water, clean air, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, improving education and so much more" -- that's right, "so much more."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand called for paid leave, affordable day care and universal pre-K. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed the other candidates while scoffing at those who say, "There's not enough money."
But given the $1.1 trillion budget deficit projected for next year, there currently isn't enough money. Warren's big idea is a wealth tax, which she portrays as a virtually bottomless well of money, but that isn't likely to live up to the hype. As University of Chicago law professor Daniel Hemel argues, it would be "an administrative nightmare" that the ultrarich would surely find ways to circumvent -- and, besides, it could well be ruled unconstitutional. Does Warren have a Plan B?
One obvious option is to roll back the 2017 tax cut, which Democrats fault as an extravagant giveaway to the rich. Supporters see the tax cuts as a required investment in robust economic growth and job creation, which is happening. But even before it took effect, the federal debt was on track to rise by some $11 trillion by 2027. Raising tax rates to where they were when Donald Trump took office would merely slow the growth of the debt, not cover the cost of new programs. Reducing the rate at which you are accumulating debt, alas, does not give you more money to spend.
It was a mild relief that some of the candidates were less cavalier about fiscal issues. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg chose to talk about other matters, such as creating "a true democracy where money can't outvote people and politicians can't choose their voters by drawing districts the way they like." Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper cautioned, "We must be progressive, but also pragmatic." But no one really challenged the chorus for a host of spending projects.
Barack Obama, despite coming to office in a crushing recession, was more realistic. "Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration or the next generation," he said at his White House Fiscal Responsibility Summit just weeks after being inaugurated. "I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay -- and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control."
If someone had uttered a comparable sentiment at Sunday's event, he or she might have been booed off the stage. But voters should keep in mind an old truth: You may not get all the government you pay for, but sooner or later, you'll pay for all the government you get.
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