When budget concerns give way to financial backers

Tue, May 29, 2012, 01:00

Will Chris Christie’s budget temper tantrum end speculation that he might become Mitt Romney’s running mate?

QUICK QUIZ: what’s a good five-letter description of Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, that ends in “y”?

The obvious choice is, of course, “bully”. But as a recent debate over the state’s budget reveals, “phony” is an equally valid answer. And as Christie goes, so goes his party.

Until now the attack of the fiscal phonies has been mainly a national rather than a state issue, with Paul Ryan, the chairman of the house budget committee, as the prime example.

As regular readers of this column know, Ryan has somehow acquired a reputation as a stern fiscal hawk despite offering budget proposals that, far from being focused on deficit reduction, are mainly about cutting taxes for the rich while slashing aid to the poor and unlucky. In fact, once you strip out Ryan’s “magic asterisks” – claims that he will somehow increase revenues and cut spending in ways that he refuses to specify – what you’re left with are plans that would increase, not reduce, federal debt.

The same can be said of Mitt Romney, who claims he will balance the budget but whose actual proposals consist mainly of huge tax cuts (for corporations and the wealthy, of course) plus a promise not to cut defence spending.

Both Ryan and Romney, then, are fake deficit hawks. And the evidence for their fakery isn’t just their bad arithmetic; it’s the fact that for all their alleged deep concern over budget gaps, that concern isn’t sufficient to induce them to give up anything that they and their financial backers want.

They’re willing to snatch food from the mouths of babes (literally, via cuts in crucial nutritional aid programmes), but that’s a positive from their point of view – the social safety net, Ryan says, should not become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”.

Maintaining low taxes on profits and capital gains, and indeed cutting those taxes further, are, however, sacrosanct.

Still, Ryan and Romney are playing to a national audience. Are Republican governors who have to deal with real budget constraints different? Well, there have been many claims to that effect; Christie, in particular, has been widely held up, not least by himself, as an example of a politician willing to make tough choices. But last week we got to see him facing an actual tough choice – and aside from the yelling-at-people thing, he proved himself just another standard fiscal phony.

Here’s the story: for some time now Christie has been touting what he calls the “Jersey comeback”. Even before his latest outburst it was hard to see what he was talking about: yes, there have been some job gains in the McMansion State since Christie took office but they have lagged gains both in the nation as a whole and in New York and Connecticut, obvious points of comparison.

Yet Christie has been adamant that New Jersey is on the way back, and that this makes room for, you guessed it, tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy.

Last week reality hit: David Rosen, the state’s independent, nonpartisan budget analyst, told legislators the state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall.

Even Christie’s officials are predicting a major budget shortfall, just not quite as big.

And the two big credit-rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard Poor’s, have recently issued warnings about New Jersey’s budget situation, which SP called “structurally unbalanced” because of the governor’s optimistic revenue assumptions.

New Jersey, then, is still in dire fiscal shape. So is our tough-talking governor willing to reconsider his pet tax cut? Fuhgeddaboudit. Instead, he wants to fill the hole with one-shot budget gimmicks, including reneging on a promise to reduce borrowing for transportation investment and diverting funds from clean-energy programmes. So much for fiscal responsibility.

Will Christie’s budget temper tantrum end speculation that he might become Romney’s running mate? I have no idea. But it really doesn’t matter: whoever Romney picks, he or she will cheerfully go along with the budget-busting, reverse Robin Hood policies that you know are coming if the former governor wins.

The modern American right doesn’t care about deficits, and never did. All that talk about debt was just an excuse for attacking Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps. And as for Christie, well, he’s just another fiscal phony, distinguished only by his fondness for invective.

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