Did Republicans learn anything from the 2008 campaign? Judging from the talk of most of the party’s presidential candidates, the answer is no.
They need a refresher on that Republican bloodbath. Pronto.
Seven years ago, Democrats were swept into power on a blue wave. The country’s nonpartisan and independent voters, thoroughly unhappy with lame-duck President George W. Bush, took out their frustrations on the GOP and went all-in on Barack Obama’s promise to leave behind partisanship and heal the nation’s divisions.
Which, of course, he completely abandoned the moment he took office. But I digress.
The 2008 message of Obama and Democrats went well beyond hope and change. They ran to the right of Republicans on government spending. Democrats declared themselves champions of fiscal responsibility. Remember Obama voting against a debt ceiling increase as a U.S. senator? Remember Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi hammering Republicans for turning budget surpluses into deficits?
Democrats got away with it, not solely because of the costs of the post-9/11 war on terror, but because of Bush’s refusal to veto anything from the Republican Congress and Tom DeLay’s annual everything-for-sale porkfest, which famously led him to label a budget with a $300 billion deficit “lean.” This recklessness allowed Democrats to demonize Bush’s tax cuts, which triggered economic growth, as bad fiscal policy that didn’t pay for itself.
Now, upon taking full control of Washington in 2009, Democrats raised taxes and ran up budget deficits and debt that made the former Republican leaders look like penny pinchers. But the Democrats’ campaign messaging worked to perfection: Republicans weren’t fiscally responsible. Republicans were big spenders. Republicans weren’t what they said they were.
Fast forward to today. Obama’s legacy has made Democrats nearly unelectable in competitive states and districts. He has overseen a recession that was longer than it should have been, a recovery that was weaker than it should have been, and economic growth that is too slow to lift wages and living standards for most Americans. The economy is so stagnant that Democratic presidential candidates are running on the misery of the middle class, which is directly related to Obama’s domestic and economic policies.
The political landscape really couldn’t be better for a Republican presidential candidate. A platform of pro-growth economic policies and restrained government spending is a winner.
But the Republican field isn’t committed to restrained spending. Nearly all of them want significant new military spending, even though Americans are fatigued from overseas interventions and the government can’t provide adequate care for the veterans of those conflicts.
Republicans are saying America’s armed forces have been cut to the bone even as we spend more than $600 billion per year on the military, which is about three times as much as the world’s second-biggest military spender, China. And the candidates are trying to pin restrained military spending on Obama when it has resulted from the sequester, which congressional Republicans supported to limit budget growth.
And the field wants increased military spending to accompany significant tax cuts. The bulk of the tax reform plans from the GOP, especially when combined with increased defense spending, will increase the budget deficit and grow the national debt.
Hey, big spenders!
Tax reform should be at the top of the GOP agenda, and Republicans can persuasively argue that reductions in corporate and capital gains rates will actually increase federal revenues by encouraging investment and spurring growth. But if the complete Republican agenda results in more federal tax dollars going out than coming in — more of the same — it will allow Hillary Clinton, the eventual Democratic nominee, to claim higher ground by championing tax increases. She can say she’s the fiscally responsible candidate — just as Democrats did in 2008.
Learn your lessons, Republicans. And above all, don’t give Democrats a chance to campaign as fiscal conservatives.
— Glenn Cook (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him this Monday at 10:30 a.m. on “Live and Local — Now!” with Kevin Wall on KBET 790 AM.