It’s important for us to remember that even though President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, successfully lobbied the nation and eventually signed into law the historic civil rights laws a half-century ago, a higher percentage of congressional Republicans than congressional Democrats voted for those bills. By then, the Republican Party, which was born to preserve the union and abolish human slavery in the United States and had elected Abraham Lincoln, had come to stand for smaller, less intrusive government, lower taxes and balancing the federal budget.
Then came 1980 and a charismatic Republican presidential nominee from California, who offered a painlessly appealing prescription for the nation’s malaise: He would double defense spending, cut Americans’ taxes by one-third and balance the federal budget. A 10-term Republican congressman, John B. Anderson of Illinois, also ran for president in 1980, first as a Republican and then as an independent. Anderson chose candor over cant and effectively burned his bridges with fellow Republicans who preferred to believe in the “tooth fairy’’ approach to political policy when, in a nationally televised debate, he dared to say: “How do you balance the budget, cut taxes and increase defense spending at the same time? It’s very simple. You do it with mirrors.’’
Anderson, of course, was right. Through two centuries — with the Louisiana Purchase, the building of a continental nation, the Great Depression and two world wars — the United States by 1980 had accumulated a national debt of $1 trillion. Over the next 12 years of Republican ownership of the White House, America’s national debt would actually quadruple. But tax cuts were popular with voters, so Republicans chose not to emphasize the “cold showers and root canal’’ politics of shrinking spending to bring the federal books into balance. Instead, lip service would be paid to fiscal responsibility by the GOP every four years. Republicans solemnly pledged in the party platform nobody read to adopt a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced federal budget — and it remains there to this day, completely ignored.
The first Democratic president elected after Ronald Reagan was confronted with then-record budget deficits and the lowest economic growth rate in a half-century. So Bill Clinton, with every elected Republican on Capitol Hill voting against him, successfully pushed through an economic plan that, heaven forfend, raised the income taxes of the richest 1.4 percent of Americans. What followed was the creation of 22 million jobs and the nation’s fiscally rising from the largest budget deficits in U.S. history to the largest budget surpluses in U.S. history.
Tax cuts may not have been wise fiscal policy, but they proved to be winning politics. Never in the past 26 years — through 16 years of Americans fighting and dying in foreign wars and five different presidents of both parties — has any Republican in Congress voted to raise taxes. There are no corporate lobbyists holding six-figure campaign checks in their manicured hands who are demanding that senators vote for a balanced budget. But tax cuts? A different matter.
South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham quipped about his failed 2016 presidential campaign: “I got out because I ran out of money. If you want to get money out of politics, you should have joined my campaign.’’ Asked a couple of weeks ago by NBC News producer Frank Thorp what would happen if Republicans failed to pass the Holy Grail of tax cuts, Graham answered: “The party fractures. Most incumbents in 2018 will get a severe primary challenge. A lot of them probably will lose. The base will fracture. The financial contributions will stop. Other than that, it’ll be fine.’’ Lindsey Graham, a candid man, is guilty of spreading the ugly truth.
— Mark Shields is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.