Mark Shields

On April 1, 2018, when Thad Cochran retired after 40 years as a US senator from Mississippi, he made history; Cochran was the last Republican in Congress to have ever voted to increase federal taxes.

He had done so on Dec. 19, 1990, when Republican President George H.W. Bush, deeply concerned about the rising federal budget deficit, persuaded Cochran and 18 other Republican senators to join 35 Democratic colleagues (this was a different era, remember) and to vote to cut federal spending and to raise Americans’ taxes. Since that date, no Republican in the House or the Senate has voted to raise taxes.

Think about it: The US budget deficit that so upset President George H.W. Bush that he broke his 1988 campaign pledge of “no new taxes” had risen to $221 billion (with a “b”).

Compare that to the record of the most recent one-term Republican president who had, in March 2016, told Robert Costa and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post that, as president, he could pay down the national debt —then about $19 trillion — in eight years by stimulating economic growth and renegotiating trade deals, but during his four years in the White House presiding over the nation’s national debt, it exploded by close to 40%, to $27.8 trillion (with a “t”).

From winning independence from England through establishing a continental nation and fighting 11 major wars — including two world wars — and a Great Depression, the United States, by the time the presidency of fiscally prudent Jimmy Carter ended, had accumulated a national debt of just under $1 trillion. Carter was defeated soundly by Republican Ronald Reagan, who ran on a platform of doubling the defense budget, cutting taxes by one-third and balancing the federal budget.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad. Reagan did cut taxes by nearly one-third and did double defense spending. But that federal debt, which had been just under $1 trillion when he took office, semi-exploded to $3 trillion during his White House tenure, causing Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., to conclude: “A responsible government does not triple the national debt in eight years.”

But the political consequences of the Gipper’s deficit spending were quite different: economic growth, a pleased electorate, the return of optimism and a 49-state victory in winning reelection. Questioned about his budget deficits, Reagan quipped to reporters: “I’m not going to worry about the budget deficit. It’s big enough to take care of itself.”

The next two-term Republican chief executive was George W. Bush, who inherited a $5 trillion national debt accumulated by the first 42 presidents. Bush, by taking the country into two wars while enacting another major tax cut, added $ 4 trillion to the growing national debt.

The last time the federal budget was balanced? When Democrat Bill Clinton was in the White House in the last century and dared to pass a budget that increased taxes on the better-off Americans while cutting spending. Clinton did it, of course, without a single Republican in Congress voting for it and with the votes of dozens of Democrats who did so knowing that it would cost them reelection.

So, with a Democrat in the White House, it is wise to heed the most recent president’s White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who spread the ugly truth: “My party is very interested in deficits when there is a Democrat in the White House. The worst thing in the whole world is deficits when Barack Obama was the president. Then Donald Trump became president and we’re a lot less interested as a party.” Amen.

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