Is fiscal conservatism dead?

Last Updated Nov 29, 2017 1:04 PM EST

"The priority is spending," the energetic and newly minted congressman, sporting an American flag pin on his dark suit jacket, told the C-SPAN host, soon adding, "the size of the government is really what it comes down to."

The year was 2010, and the congressman-elect was Mick Mulvaney, then a 43-year-old restaurateur and developer who rode the tea party wave during President Obama's first term to defeat 14-term incumbent Democrat John Spratt and be the first Republican to represent South Carolina's 5th Congressional District since 1883.

The "GOP Young Gun" ran a campaign platform focused on fiscal discipline — harping on the then-$13 trillion national debt, rampant government spending and growth, and the mandates under the Affordable Care Act that conservatives saw as anything but affordable. Mulvaney wasn't so different from many of his freshman contemporaries, who sought to scale back a Washington that was, as they saw it, spending out of control, if not spending itself out of existence, and burdening future generations with impossible promises.

Fast forward to 2017. The national debt has surpassed $20 trillion. The country's budget has seen nothing but deficits for the last two decades. Spending has only gone up, even under a GOP-run Congress. And arguably, Republicans — who control the White House, Senate, and House — don't seem terribly concerned.

Mulvaney, now the director of the Office of Management and Budget after six years of establishing a reputation as a fiscal hawk in Congress, now says that "we need new deficits." The reason he's saying that is that the tax plan, which is a top priority for the president and Republicans in Congress would likely add about $1.5 trillion to the national debt over a decade. GOP lawmakers aim to pass legislation on taxes before Christmas.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told CBS News' "Face the Nation" earlier this month that reducing government spending is "not an issue we're focused on right now." Mr. Trump cares about the debt, Mnuchin says, but he's focused now on economic growth through tax cuts.

There is talk that entitlement reform may be on the docket in 2018. In October, Mr. Trump said welfare is "becoming a very, very big subject, and people are taking advantage of the system," but nearly a year into the new Congress and Mr. Trump's first term, it has yet to enter the political fray.

So, what happened to the party of limited spending, and limited government?

CBS News spoke with political strategists who say it's fair to trace some of the shift in focus to the 2016 presidential campaign. They agree there wasn't as much of an emphasis on fiscal discipline in that election cycle, compared with previous ones.

As he campaigned, Mr. Trump emphasized jobs and the economy, drawing out voters who felt marginalized by unstable conditions in fields that once bolstered working class America. But that campaign rarely addressed government spending and size. And when he did, candidate Trump sometimes tacked in the opposite direction, as when he pledged to not cut Social Security, which now has fewer than three workers paying for every one retiree, and is projected to have just two workers for every one retiree by 2030. (In 1945, there were more than 40 workers per retiree.) 

Compared with the party's 2012 platform, which made cutting government spending and getting the country's financial house in order a cornerstone, the 2016 GOP platform made few references to the government spending or size.

Then came Nov. 8, 2016, and, as fiscal hawk Sen. Bob Corker lamented earlier this month, Washington became "like a party atmosphere." The Tennessee Republican expressed his frustration to a crowd at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. earlier this month when a college student who identified himself as a moderate Democrat from North Carolina asked how he should talk to his friends about the fiscal challenges facing the country.

"There's no question that the Medicare Part D component that was passed under President Bush unpaid for helped begin part of what's happening," Corker said, speaking to a crowd a an event on bipartisanship at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. "And by the way he's a friend that I respect and like very much, more so even as time goes by. And then the Katrina thing happened. And I think he felt himself wrongly accused of being not as open minded, I'll just use that word. And so then even more money began to be spent. And then, and then President Obama came in and all of the sudden Republicans got religion on spending, right? And my friends on the other side of the aisle that had religion while Bush was there lost that religion and liked spending money. And I will say that now — and that's generally speaking not every person of course — now what's happened is look, it's like a party atmosphere, as I've said many times publicly to you and to some of your colleagues here, it's like a party began on Election Day this last year. I don't recognize my side of the aisle as it relates to those issues. So it's unfortunate that it kind of ebbs and flows. You get a lot more fiscally conservative when the other side of the aisle is in office. The problem is for you, a young student in North Carolina, the greatest threat to our nation is not ISIS, is not North Korea, it's not Russia getting involved in our elections, the greatest threat to our country is the fiscal issue. And almost no one cares about it. Almost no one cares about it."

GOP strategist Ford O'Connell agreed with much of Corker's assessment, adding that the "realities of governing don't always comport with principle."

"Especially in Bush's case, and in Trump's case and even in Obama's case, to a great extent, when you have slim majorities in one or both chambers of Congress," O'Connell said. "And you realize that there is principle but you have to show that you can govern, and if you can't govern, well you're going to go back to screaming to the wall and talking about principle. It's a vicious cycle of what happens when you're in and out of power."

During the most recent Bush administration, Republicans often gave less of a priority to reducing the budget than Democrats, O'Connell pointed out. For instance, in 2007, Pew found Republicans were less likely than Democrats (42 percent to 57 percent) to say reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for Congress. But shortly after Obama took office and into 2016, Republicans in Pew polls were more likely to say reducing the deficit is a top priority than Democrats or independents.

That isn't to say the Trump administration isn't pushing for cuts. The president's proposed 2018 budget slashed funding for the Department of Labor, international aid, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Environmental Protection Agency, for instance. But those cuts were balanced out by an increase in defense spending, and the Congressional Budget Office — which the Trump administration often criticizes as inaccurate — said the 2018 budget wouldn't balance, like the administration initially claimed it would. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continues to account for an increasing proportion of spending each year, now at more than half of all federal spending.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

When Republicans do propose shrinking spending, it doesn't always go over well. Bush "took really good initiative" on attempting to reform Social Security, said Bruce Haynes, founder of the politically independent strategic communications firm Purple Strategies.

"And it ended up being wildly unpopular," Haynes added.

The GOP faced the same obstacle when it tried — repeatedly and unsuccessfully — to repeal Obamacare, which expanded Medicaid eligibility to millions more Americans.

"The problem is once you give someone or a group of people a benefit, it is very very hard if not impossible to take away said benefit," O'Connell said. "That's the reason why we have this issue."

But the GOP's history of failing to make good on its campaign promise of fiscal discipline is a long and troubled one, well beyond the two most recent Republican administrations, said Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. Former presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, she said, were likely the last Republicans to make good on conservative spending promises.

"I would say that's about the last time that Republicans did make good on their pledge," Perry said.

Even Ronald Reagan, often invoked as the gold standard of modern conservatism, failed to manage the debt or cut spending in real terms, she said.

"Reagan, who didn't believe in lots of government programs and wanted to cut taxes, runs up the debt 190 percent," Perry said, noting that Reagan crippled the Soviet Union, but at a cost.

There is no perfect measure of how much each president and corresponding Congress has added to the debt. Each era faces different economic challenges, wars and warring party factions. But in modern history, the debt has generally increased in percentage terms more under Republican presidencies than Democratic ones, Perry noted.

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt mushroomed the debt by more than 1,000 percent as he guided the country through the Great Depression and World War II, the presidencies that have seen the greatest percentage increases in the national debt were Ronald Reagan (186 percent, from adding $1.86 trillion to a $998 billion debt), and George W. Bush (101 percent, roughly doubling a $5.8 trillion national debt). President Barack Obama, often assailed as a reckless spender by conservatives, increased the debt by 86 percent — adding nearly $8 trillion to the formerly $11.7 trillion debt, but still less than some of his Republican predecessors.

The last president in modern history to boast a budget surplus instead of a deficit was Bill Clinton. Clinton, dealing with a Republican Congress in his second term, tackled welfare reform in a way Republicans have not since.

Perry said Republicans like the idea of small government. But when threats arise, they still want a government large enough to act as a buffer.

"I think Republicans continue with this concept because it taps into a founding-era sensibility of 'we don't like government, we don't like big government,'" Perry said.

"But Republicans have to respond to economic downturns, they have to respond to natural disasters, they have to respond to wars, Perry added. "So even if they believe that in their heart of hearts, it's hard for them to get it through."

One can argue that deficits specifically have never truly mattered much to the GOP, or at least, that whether deficits matter has been a point of contention. Former Vice President Dick Cheney after the midterm elections of 2002 raised eyebrows when he said Reagan "proved that deficits don't matter," similar to Mulvaney's more recent comments.

A core group of Republicans have always pushed for spending cuts, while another core group focuses on economic growth, Haynes said.

"The Republican Party's not monolithic," Haynes said.

The current administration and Congress has focused on fiscal matters — but more on the growth side thus far than the fiscal discipline side, O'Connell said. The argument is that economic growth fuels the economy, increasing tax revenue and ideally, closing the deficit gap. That does not always work, as in Reagan's case.

Still, prudence on spending and debt has real bearing on people's daily lives, O'Connell argued.

"The buying power of a dollar today is less than the buying power of a dollar in 2000 and it's not because the dollar was stronger or weaker," O'Connell said. "It's also because of the fact your money doesn't go as far purchasing the same items because we've racked up debt against the dollar."

But government spending and size isn't necessarily something that fuels voters' energy.

"Voters care about the size of government relative to the size of their own personal freedom, not so much as a number on a page of spending," Haynes said.

Cultural and social issues have also consumed the minds of voters and focus of politicians more lately, Haynes and O'Connell agreed.

"What is more likely to drive people to the voting booth? And unfortunately it is knee-jerk reactions to issues that they (voters) hold dearly, or at least think they hold dearly," O'Connell said. "So you get a lot more bang for the buck with cultural issues, regardless of the party, than you do with theoretical long-term issues that people can't bank into their pocketbook or their mental pocketbook if you will."

Short of another Democratic administration or Congress, it may require an economic boon of historic proportions to refocus Washington on spending and government size — and we're not there yet.

"It more typically happens when we're in a healthy, roaring economy, and people aren't clamoring for jobs and growth because there's plenty of it," Haynes said. 

He added, "That's when people will want to come to grips with the $20 trillion in debt."

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.