What Republicans Mean When They Say They Fear The Debt

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 2, 2011

What Republicans Mean When They Say They Fear The Debt

Michelle Bachmann thinks the national debt is like the Holocaust:

Rep. Michele Bachmann invoked the Holocaust Saturday morning as she described the tax burden that America's next generation will face unless action is taken to reduce federal spending and the national debt.

The Minnesota Republican told more than 200 Republicans gathered at a meeting of conservatives that she recalled learning about the Holocaust as a young girl and being horrified that many Americans didn't learn until after World War II that millions of Jews were killed.

Bachmann, careful to note that there was no direct analogy in today's times to the Holocaust, still tied the loss of "economic liberty" that Americans face today to the systematic killing of six million European Jews.

"We are seeing eclipsed in front of our eyes a similar death and a similar taking away," Bachmann said. "It is this disenfranchisement that I think we have to answer to."

It's worth noting that, when republicans invoke the horrors of the national debt, they don't actually mean the national debt. They mean big government.

Here's one way to think about this. Among Democrats, you have a split between moderates who consider the deficit a huge problem, and liberals who consider it a less urgent problem. The moderates generally believe the threat of the deficit is so severe that it's worth cutting a deal to reduce it, even if that means making a lot of spending cuts they'd rather not make. Liberals may favor doing something about the deficit, but they tend to be less willing to sacrifice their priorities to make a deal.

On the Republican side, everyone is hysterical about the deficit. But the most concerned Republicans -- the ones most likely to copare the deficit to, say, the Holocaust, or some other extremely dire, non-fiscal crisis -- tend to be the least interested in cutting a deal to reduce it. Indeed, it's the Bachmanns and the Paul Ryans who most feverishly insistent on hewing to the party's anti-tax orthodoxy. They are left arguing that the debt threatens to destroy American civilization, but they would rather leave it unaddressed than agree to even a dime of higher taxes.

In my Newsweek column from a few weeks ago, I argued that Ryan sees the coming fiscal crisis not as the gap between revenue and outlay but as the prophecy of Atlas Shrugged come to life -- an overbearing government punishing the productive to aid the unproductive and precipitating a total collapse:

When Ryan warns of the specter of collapse, he is not merely referring to the alarming gap between government outlays and receipts, as his admirers in the media assume. (Every policy change of the last decade that increased the deficit—the Bush tax cuts, the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—Ryan voted for.) He is also invoking Rand’s almost theological certainty that when a government punishes the strong to reward the weak, it must invariably collapse. That is the crisis his Path to Prosperity seeks to avert. 

If you try to take figures like Bachmann, Ryan and and the rest at their word when they claim to fear the rise of debt, almost nothing they have ever done in public life makes any sense. But if you view them as using the debt to stand in for their beliefs about the propoer size of government, then it all makes sense.

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posted in: jonathan chait, michele bachmann, michelle bachmann, minnesota

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