During his presidential run in 1992, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot stood out for his warnings on the nation’s debt, and for his homespun expressions. Those attributes came together when Perot would exclaim, as he did whenever he got near a live microphone, “The debt is like a crazy aunt we keep down in the basement. All the neighbors know she’s there, but nobody wants to talk about her!”
How things have changed! Now if an aunt were imprisoned in a basement, the neighbors would launch a reality show called “The Real Housewives of the Neighborhood Where They Keep That Old Lady in a Basement” (RHNWTKTOLB). And our political conversation pays far less attention to deficits than in Perot’s heyday, even though the national debt crisis is far worse.
In 1992, the national debt was $4 trillion, 62 percent of gross domestic product. By 2020, the national debt will hit $23 trillion, 106 percent of GDP. If the debt had grown at the rate of inflation since 1992, it would be just $7.3 trillion.
But the biggest difference between Perot’s heyday and now when it comes to deficits is that in 1992, both Democrats and Republicans were comparatively obsessed with the subject.
The myth of Perot is that the 19 percent of the vote that he drew in 1992 must have come mostly from incumbent George H.W. Bush, throwing the election to Bill Clinton, but analysis shows that’s not clear. What did cost Bush support was a deepening recession and the large tax increases he pushed through, breaking his 1988 “Read my lips, no new taxes” pledge.
Bush increased the top tax rate from 28 percent to 31 percent, raised the income subject to Medicare taxes from $53,400 to $125,000, hiked the gas tax five cents per gallon and put levies on cars, boats, planes, furs, alcohol and tobacco.
Then Clinton hiked taxes even further. Prodded by the Republican House takeover of 1994 and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Clinton also signed welfare reform legislation, cut defense spending and controlled domestic spending. Buoyed by a booming economy, Clinton and his Republican frenemies managed four years of budget surpluses, from 1998 to 2001, that totaled about $560 billion.
Eighteen years later, the United States will run a $900 billion deficit this year that will be more than $1 trillion in 2020 and each year into the foreseeable future, with the stock market humming and unemployment at historic lows. That’s thanks in large part to President Donald Trump’s huge defense spending increases and massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. But the mounting debts also are due to the deep tax cuts and wild spending of George W. Bush and his GOP cronies, and the wild spending and refusal to let most of the Bush tax cuts expire of Barack Obama and his Democratic cronies.
My favorite Perotism is “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” But now the debt is exploding, greater imbalances in Social Security and Medicare funding are going to worsen the deficit tremendously over the next 25 years, and we don’t even appoint the committees to dither anymore.
The leaders of both parties no longer even see the snake. They are ignoring the cries of the aunt in the basement.
And a nation that once tuned in in droves to watch Perot’s 30-minute infomercials on runaway debt is happy to ignore the looming problem. Maybe Perot’s message needs an update for our time:
“Real Housewives of the Balanced Budgets” anyone?
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.