We are very upset about the deficit. Provided we get to define "deficit." Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
We are very upset about the deficit. Provided we get to define "deficit." Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Jonathan Chait has a smart column up today in which he predicts that Republican reform, should the party wind up winning the presidency and controlling Congress after 2016, will come in the form of Bushism. That is, Republicans will want to enact tax cuts for the rich while also cultivating a “populist” reputation (and erasing the legacy of Mitt Romney's “47%”). How will they square this circle? By exploding the deficit again.

Sounds plausible. I’d add that it’s not as incompatible with Republicans' Obama-era deficit fetishism as one might think, for the simple reason that mainstream conservative deficit fetishism has never been about budget balancing in the first place. Instead, what I’ve called the “war-on-budgeting” school of Republicans has actively resisted grappling with the comparison of revenues and spending. Conservative rhetoric about “deficits” has little relationship to actual budget realities. It makes more sense if it’s understood to be an assessment of current levels of taxation compared with ideal tax rates, and current spending (on specific programs, or overall) with the ideal amount of government spending.

Understood that way, it’s obvious that raising taxes can't possibly address the “deficit” because it puts taxes even farther from the conservative ideal. Similarly, for many conservatives, cutting military spending can't be part of a solution. It also explains why deficit-cutting remains just as urgent for conservatives today as it did several years ago -- even though (as Chait notes) the actual federal budget deficit has dropped dramatically. They're not talking about that deficit.

Now, it’s certainly true that some Republicans in Congress (retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, for one) don’t participate in the war on budgeting; they actually care about real budget deficits. But very few conservatives opposed George W. Bush’s tax cuts, which increased the deficit, or demanded that Bush-era wars be paid for. Their breaking point was spending programs, such as Medicare Part D, which they didn’t want anyway.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying I think Chait is correct -- that unified Republican control of the federal government at any point in the near future would probably explode the deficit.