Since the Great Recession, debate over government deficits has often dominated politics and was central to the 2012 campaign. But talk of the deficit has fallen off sharply in President Obama’s second term, just like the deficit itself, and candidates in this presidential cycle seem to be largely avoiding the topic.
After the federal budget deficit — the government’s spending in excess of its revenue — hit a post-World War II high of nearly 10 percent of GDP in 2009, it fell to 2.8 percent of GDP in 2014 (right around the 50-year average). At 100 percent of GDP, the gross federal debt — the total amount the government owes — is high by historical standards, but it has stabilized since 2013.
And as the government’s finances have found a sounder footing, GOP presidential candidates and members of Congress are talking about deficits and debt less. “While it is true that deficits are significantly smaller, it’s also true that we’re still running deficits and we’re adding to the debt,” Michael Strain, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said in an interview. But, he acknowledged, “it doesn’t have political salience anymore, or doesn’t seem to.”
In Obama’s first term, Republicans criticized him — and Democrats in general — for the country’s burgeoning deficits. The issue was a fixture of the 2012 race. But during the 2016 cycle, Republican presidential candidates have mentioned the debt and deficits less frequently. Specifically, “deficit” — regardless of context — was mentioned an average of two times in the first five televised Republican debates (this includes the five “undercard” debates, too). In those same debates, “debt” — also regardless of context — was mentioned an average of 6.5 times. This includes mentions from the moderators. Compare that with an average of 3.2 “deficit” mentions and 10.9 “debt” mentions in the 20 GOP debates during the 2012 campaign. Removing references by moderators and tallying explicit mentions of federal debt by candidates — so, excluding references to state budget deficits or student loan debt, for example — reveals a similar drop-off.
Most GOP candidates this cycle aren’t even paying lip service to the conservative goal of not adding to the deficit; they’re not trying to hide that their tax plans would add billions and in some cases trillions of dollars to the deficit. Mitt Romney’s tax plan in 2012 purported to be deficit-neutral. Not so this cycle among Republican candidates, Strain said. “A lot of these candidates, even with dynamic scoring, are just losing so much money,” he said. (Candidates of both parties routinely make cosmetic improvements to their tax plans by using dynamic scoring — the process of factoring in higher government revenue and better economic growth.) And that may factor into how much they’re willing to talk about federal debt. “You can’t talk about it and then try to make it worse,” Strain said.
Perhaps this is simply a reflection of an improving budget outlook. But political calculations surely matter, too. By bringing up the deficit, Republican candidates could be opening themselves up to the retort that it has declined under a Democratic administration. Sure enough, Obama bragged about “cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters” in his final State of the Union address Tuesday night.
And it’s not just GOP candidates, either. Members of Congress utter the words “deficit” or “debt” far less frequently than they did a few years back. That’s according to Capitol Words data provided by the Sunlight Foundation, which mines the Congressional Record to measure how frequently politicians use certain words.
Total mentions in Congress of “deficit” peaked in 2011 at 8,101. The count declined to 1,543 mentions in 2015. The use of “debt,” too, has fallen precipitously since 2011. (The debt ceiling crisis in August 2011 no doubt fueled the spike then.)
Congress’s apparently declining interest in deficits and debt is shared by most Americans. Fewer Americans now cite the federal budget deficit as one of their top priorities. According to PollingReport.com, in 35 polls taken between June 2010 and July 2015 that asked about the “most important problem” or “priority” for the country, the percentage of respondents citing some variation of the “federal deficit” or “budget deficit/national debt” steadily declined.1
As more people lose interest in the deficit, Republican policy experts face a conundrum: how to raise alarm about what they still consider to be the government’s profligate fiscal policy and how to promote conservative solutions when enthusiasm is waning.
Timothy Kane, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution, worries that politicians (of both parties) will kick the can down the road until built-up debt triggers a financial crisis. “Politicians don’t care about debt until it’s too late,” Kane said.
Kane doesn’t foresee any push to address these issues, no matter which party takes the White House. The economy is strengthening, and it doesn’t pay to be a politician calling for unpopular policies — either higher taxes or lower spending, depending on your party preference. “Democrats aren’t going to raise taxes, and Republicans aren’t going to cut spending,” he said.
In 2016, talk of the deficit and debt, such as it is, elicits only a shrug.
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