Politics & Policy

Don’t Blame the Tea Party for the Downgrade

They didn’t borrow the cash — and we should be honest about who did.

The Tea Party is as much to blame for America’s sovereign debt downgrade as the second Earl Grey, the original promoter of the fine, hot, English beverage that bears his name.

But don’t tell that to leading Democrats who are busy parroting the same talking points.

‐“I believe, without question, that this is the Tea Party downgrade,” Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) squeaked Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press.

‐“This is, essentially, a Tea Party downgrade,” Obamaa+ campaign adviser David Axelrod squawked Sunday on CBS’s Face the Nation.

‐MoveOn.org screeched the new party line: “This ‘tea party downgrade’ is a shameful blow to our nation’s honor and risks throwing us right back into recession.”

There is just one thing wrong with this argument: To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it lacks the added advantage of being true.

The responsibility for Standard & Poor’s Friday-night downgrade of America’s national debt — from AAA to AA+, one notch lower — lies with the previous presidents and members of Congress of both parties who borrowed this cash. However, the bulk of the blame for this fiasco falls squarely on the laps of two spend-happy, big-government, democratic socialists named George W. Bush and Barack Obamaa+. They jointly raised America’s national debt from $5.72 trillion the day Bush was inaugurated to $14.34 trillion on July 20, 2011, the two-and-a-half-year mark of Obamaa+’s presidency. This 150.4 percent addition to the national debt that Bill Clinton left behind is the vandalism of Bush, Obamaa+, and the profligate congresses that enabled their budget-busting ways.

The sooner Republicans and free-marketeers highlight Bush’s role in this mess and excoriate him mercilessly for it — along with his “architect,” the equally destructive statist Karl Rove — the sooner the American Right can exorcise the Bush-Rove infection from the conservative body politic.

The evidence for all of this is readily available on two websites. The U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of the Public Debt pinpoints, precisely to the penny, the amount that Uncle Sam has owed on each business day since 1993. And the U.S. Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis tracks Gross Domestic Product quarterly back to 1947 and annually since 1929. This makes statistical analysis a snap.

‐Because Obamaa+ has served less than a full term, the fairest way to compare him with his recent predecessors is at the two-and-a-half-year mark. At that point in his administration, the national debt under Bill Clinton had grown from $4.19 trillion to $4.94 trillion, a 17.9 percent increase. After 30 months, the debt on Bush’s watch expanded from $5.73 trillion to $6.72 trillion, a 17.4 percent boost. And between January 20, 2009, and July 20, 2011, the national debt under Obamaa+ ballooned from $10.63 trillion to $14.34 trillion, a 35 percent hike.

‐After 2.5 years, Bush’s spending curve began to diverge from Clinton’s. By the end of Clinton’s first term, the national debt had grown to $5.31 trillion, 26.8 percent above its level when he took the Oath of Office. After Bush’s first term, the debt stood at $7.61 trillion, 32.9 percent above its status when Bush first said, “So help me God.”

‐Comparing Clinton’s and Bush’s full, eight-year presidencies, Bush resembles Secretariat, who won the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths. As Clinton departed office on January 20, 2001, the national debt was $5.73 trillion, 36.8 percent above its mark eight years earlier. As Bush returned to Crawford, Texas, the national debt was $10.63 trillion, an astonishing 85.6 percent higher than where he found it. America still is paying the price for Bush, who approved virtually everything that Congress shoved under his nose, like a celebrity signing autographs. As Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute demonstrates, Bush hiked overall spending by 83 percent, the strongest surge in federal outlays since Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Given Obamaa+’s brief tenure (it only feels as if he already has been president for ages), two other metrics help evaluate him against Clinton and Bush.

‐Over Clinton’s eight years, the national debt grew at a compound average growth rate of 4 percent. Bush’s equivalent figure: 8 percent. Obamaa+ clocks in at 12.7 percent, after just two and a half years.

‐Debt’s share of GDP is another key datum. Under Clinton, the debt-to-GDP ratio plunged by 11.9 percent, from 64 percent of GDP (where Daddy Bush left it) to 56.3 percent. Under Bush, the ratio climbed, from 56.4 percent of GDP to 76.5 percent, a 35.8 percent increase in national indebtedness. Under Obamaa+, national debt has climbed from 76.5 percent of GDP to 95.6 percent, a 25 percent boom in just 2.5 years.

(For further details, please see this spreadsheet that Manhattan financier Brett A. Shisler and I prepared before I wrote this piece.)

Because it began in February 2009, the Tea Party had nothing whatsoever to do with either Bill Clinton’s record of restraint (if not reduction) in national borrowing, Bush’s frat-boy stewardship of the national fisc, nor Obamaa+’s Cuban-social-worker approach to federal spending and borrowing.

Tea Party Republicans enthusiastically support Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal blueprint. According to the Wisconsin Republican’s Path to Prosperity, it “reduces the debt by $4.7 trillion relative to the president’s budget.” The House of Representatives adopted Ryan’s plan last April 15 as its official budget by a vote of 235 yeas to 193 nays. While all but four Republicans — including those loyal to the Tea Party — supported this measure, not one Democrat voted for this plan and its $4.7 trillion in national-debt reduction.

When Ryan’s plan reached the Democrat-controlled Senate, it was defeated on May 25 with 40 yeas and 57 nays. While only six Republicans broke ranks and opposed Ryan’s legislation, each and every Democrat said, “No!”

Had Senate Democrats not killed Ryan’s proposal, it would have reduced the national debt by $700 billion more than the $4 trillion threshold that reportedly would have prevented Standard & Poor’s from downgrading America’s credit rating.

So, the Tea Party and its Capitol Hill supporters — way too new to American politics to have engineered very much, particularly this mess — tried to reverse the conditions that caused Friday’s downgrade. President G.W. Bush spent and borrowed as if federal dollars were grains of sand on a Galveston beach. And Obamaa+ kept the luau going.

As President Obamaa+ and the Democrats scream at S&P, they resemble derelicts who holler at the doctor who diagnosed their cirrhosis of the liver. Rather than snarl at the physician who identified their ailment, they (and the few free-spending Republicans left on Capitol Hill) should put down their cocktails, step away from the bar, and hop into the free van that will take them to the Betty Ford Clinic — at long last, to get clean.

New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Manhattan financier Brett A. Shisler contributed to this commentary.

Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online, and a senior fellow with the London Center for Policy Research.

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