If you line up the events of the past two weeks in Washington with the statements made by politicians about them, it’s more or less impossible to make sense of the deal struck between the White House and Congressional Republicans, which would extend the Bush tax cuts for two more years and unemployment benefits for thirteen months, with some additional stimulative tax cuts thrown in.
The Republicans have spent two years—an entire election cycle and postelection victory lap—repeating with tourettic persistence dire warnings about the existential threat posed by large deficits and mounting government debt.
And yet, amazingly, these same Republicans (and a few conservative Democrats), who love to offer lectures about the necessity of shared sacrifice, also spent the week demanding that all the Bush tax cuts be made permanent, a policy that would increase the debt over the next ten years by an astounding $3.3 trillion. Occasionally, you would find politicians oscillating madly between these two positions in the same paragraph or media appearance, reaching its reductio ad absurdum with a blog post about Kent Conrad’s views on the matter that George Stephanopoulos headlined: Sen. Conrad: Extend All Tax Cuts; Time to Get ‘Serious’ About Deficit.
This apparent contradiction makes sense only if you understand what has become so manifestly obvious that writing it out makes me bored and angry: conservatives do not care about deficits or the national debt. Nothing they have done over the past several decades—from the record deficits of the Reagan and Bush/DeLay years to their party-line opposition to nearly every legislative measure (public option healthcare reform, cap and trade) that would reduce the deficit—suggests otherwise. The great spokesman for the so-called fiscal hawks in the GOP caucus, Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, not only voted against the largely conservative recommendations of the president’s deficit commission but in 2003 cast the deciding vote for Medicare Part D, a corporate giveaway and entitlement expansion that was unfunded and will, according to the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, add "$400 billion to the deficit in the first 10 years, and trillions more in the decades after that."
What Republicans do care about is defending the incomes of the country’s wealthiest, distributing income upward and cutting taxes in order to make progressive governance impossible. Obama was right to say in his press conference that tax cuts for the rich are the Republicans’ Holy Grail.
Which is why they were fine with throwing in that bunch of new tax cuts with the Bush tax-cut extension, at a cost of more than $300 billion. They know that by extending the upper-income cuts now, not to mention the historically low (35 percent) rate of estate taxes, they have all but foreclosed the possibility of rates being raised in two years. Tax cuts today. Tax cuts tomorrow. Tax cuts forever.