By CHARLIE MITCHELL
OXFORD – The phrase “toss under the bus” is popular with commentators. (Too popular.) It means to abandon one’s supporters. It is the opposite of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant admonition to “dance with the one what brung you,” but when it fits it fits.
With events in Washington last week, successive presidents have now tossed their voting base under the proverbial bus when it comes to managing (or mismanaging) the people’s credit card.
During his eight years, President George W. Bush oversaw a doubling of America’s debt from $4 trillion to $8 trillion. Much of that time, the chambers of Congress were controlled by Democrats, but Bush did little to stymie spending. Indeed, the president’s fellow Republicans, including Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, plowed right ahead.
Bush campaigned for the White House as a fiscal conservative.
But adding to the debt was authorized by Bush, even initiated by Bush. An example would be the Medicare prescription drug benefit – which is a good thing – except that there was no mechanism to pay for the new entitlement. It was initially estimated to cost $400 billion in its first 10 years, but will likely cost three times that much.
In this way and others, the Bush base was tossed under the bus and Republicans forfeited any claim to fiscal conservatism they could inject into the party’s efforts against the election of Barack Obama.
Next look what President Obama has done.
Last week, he announced a compromise plan under which he would favor extending a package of tax cuts enacted during the Bush years if Republicans would agree to extend unemployment checks jobless people are receiving for another year.
The tax cuts were enacted in 2001 with an automatic repealer at the end of this year. Until last week, Obama was adamant that the income tax rates should be restored (at least) to their 2000 level for households with gross revenue of $250,000 per year or more. Democrats said the breaks have been “gifts” to people “who didn’t need the money.” Republicans countered that small businesses and high earners were job creators who need to keep the money to rev up the economy. And perhaps due to their astounding gains in midterm elections last month, Obama caved.
To their credit, Obama’s base, unlike Bush’s, did not take this passively. Almost instantly, liberal voices on radio and television protested in the strongest terms. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, an avid Obama fan and ardent critic of the Bush years, went so far as to suggest that core Democrats should start looking for someone to run against Obama.
As is almost always the case, the details matter greatly. Serious journalists have examined a breakdown of what extending the tax cuts will cost. Their bottom line is that while a two-year extension would, if figured over 10 years, mean the federal treasury would forego about $900 billion, only $133 billion would be from those nasty old rich folks. Obama has pointed out that the rest of the package includes such general breaks as earned income credits for the working poor, credits for children and a payroll tax holiday.
Perception, however, usually matters more than reality, so it appears Obama will be in the proverbial doghouse with the yappers. MoveOn.org aired a TV commercial the morning after the compromise plan begging the president to hold the line. One “typical citizen” on the commercial said her income would lead to the higher tax, but she knew the nation needed the money more than she did. (Omitted was the fact that America accepts donations and any person can send a check any time, owed or not.)
But let’s reset the game clock and look at something fundamental. The debt clock is ticking toward $14 trillion today, up from $5 trillion 12 years ago.
This week, as commentators use tired phrases to analyze the political weirdness and members of Congress parade around either glum or gloating, the debt keeps growing. And the hard part: Both presidents, by throwing their biggest fans under the bus, have only caused it to grow faster.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.