The bewilderment plaguing the Republican establishment vividly demonstrates how clueless our political leadership has managed to become. In late January, a cavalcade of so-called leading conservative thinkers took to the pages of The National Review to denounce the conservative credentials of bellicose billionaire Donald Trump and demean his entitlement to serious consideration as the Republican presidential nominee. And since then, the insurgent Mr. Trump has rolled on in the party primaries, while the heir to the establishment throne, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, has called it quits after dumping a reported $130 million down the sewer that was his anticipated coronation. Perhaps the party leaders simply cannot accept the fact that they brought this on themselves.
In the election of 2000, the Republican Party — with a significant assist from the Supreme Court's decision to intervene in and then halt the Florida vote count ordered by that state's highest court — took control of the White House and both houses of Congress, winning the House and gaining a tie in the Senate. While its control of the Senate was briefly interrupted by the decision of independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to caucus with the Democrats, the Republicans substantially controlled the government until the mid-term elections of 2006. This was the first extended period of Republican domination since a 12-year run from 1919 to 1931, a period that culminated in the Great Depression and the party's loss of both houses of Congress in the 1930 mid-terms. Perhaps they should have learned something from that experience.
By end of fiscal year 2001, the last under the Bill Clinton presidency, (a fiscal year runs from October to the September, meaning that a prior administration's spending carries into the first nine months of a new presidential term), the national debt stood at about $5.8 trillion. By the end of fiscal year 2007, it had reached $9 trillion. To put that $3.2 trillion increase (55 percent) into perspective, the entire cumulative national debt from the inception of the republic did not reach a total of $3 trillion until fiscal year 1991 — a period of more than two centuries. This becomes even more staggering when one considers that, in the preceding years of the Clinton presidency, increases to the national debt had been accumulating at a significantly reduced rate, from a high of $432 billion during Fiscal Year 1991 under George H.W. Bush, to a low of $18 billion during fiscal year 2000.
For those who believe that the national debt is only relevant as a percentage of gross domestic product, the numbers are equally revealing. The national debt as a percentage of GDP had fallen during the Clinton presidency from 66.1 percent at the end of fiscal year 1993 to 56.4 percent by the end of fiscal year 2001. By the end of fiscal year 2007, it had jumped to 61 percent, the largest increase since the deficit spending needed to fight World War II.
In 2001, the Republicans also inherited a budget surplus of $154 billion. In one year, the surplus was turned into a deficit of $186 billion, which reached $464 billion by 2008, a net negative change of $618 billion. It is undeniable that the war on terror became an enormously costly undertaking. However, those costs were compounded by tax cuts for the wealthy and the reimplementation of supply-side economics, a war of choice in Iraq, and even a prescription drug benefit added to Medicare — all pursued without any meaningful attempt to raise the necessary revenues.
The ultimate collapse of the economy in 2008 was the final indictment of the financial and regulatory mismanagement that characterized this period of failed governance. The resulting need for the TARP bailouts only added to our nation's indebtedness. In fact, more than a trillion dollars was added to the debt in both fiscal years 2008 and 2009, the last of the Bush presidency, and, the debt as a percentage of GDP reached a whopping 83 percent.
And the party has done little to repair its image or demonstrate competence since recapturing control of first the House and then the Senate during the Obama presidency. It is little wonder that the Republican establishment is regarded with suspicion by voters who consider themselves fiscal conservatives. Some of those voters are also social conservatives, but many are socially moderate or liberal. In either case, the Republican establishment has offered nothing to suggest that they understand and practice the policies that fiscal conservatives embrace. Indeed, the unusually large cast of Republican presidential candidates who began the primary season, many of whom have fallen by the wayside, have spent most of their time staking out various socially conservative positions, with never a mention of departing from the disastrous fiscal policies that piled on so much debt.
For all his glaring faults — and there are many — the Trump candidacy is succeeding where the establishment fails in great part due to the fact that he is certainly not offering the prospect of more of the same. We have seen how the establishment has governed when given the chance, and few voters want to go back there.
Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a downtown law firm. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.