Presidential campaigns are all about the future, yet they take place in the present and rest upon the past. A candidate’s record, and performance in debates and on the trail, are what a voter has to go on. So the records of the Republican candidates when it comes to fiscal responsibility matter, especially in a nomination campaign that so far has revolved around the fiscal irresponsibility of Washington politicians.
In this week’s magazine, which is available to subscribers online, via tablet and on paper, I look at how the candidates have dealt with one side of the spending equation during their careers: the cookie jar that is the U.S. Treasury. (See the accompanying graphic, outside the pay wall, here.) All the governors running—Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry–will tell you that they balanced budgets throughout their time in office. They are talking about state budgets, and this claim is a bit like saying they ate food every day. Their states had rules in place that required balanced budgets. They had no choice.
All of the governors, however, also have records of looking for federal funds to help balance their budgets, and in the case of Romney that includes the more than $300 million he lobbied for to pay for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Like most governors in office, he did what he could to use the federal government to balance his books. The biggest accomplishment in this regard was his success in convincing the Bush Administration to allow Massachusetts to keep getting nearly $400 million a year in special Medicaid reimbursements that were slated for elimination in 2003. His pitch: I will use the money to help fund a grand new experiment in state-based universal healthcare. (Don’t forget: Even the Bush Administration was excited by experiments with individual mandates back then.)
Perry has a state record that is distinguished for its efforts to cut and limit state spending. But it is also distinguished by its willingness to push for federal deficit spending to help pick up the tab. He was helped in this by the fact that Texas had a direct line into the upper ranks of House leadership, who were happy to send gifts to the state. Similarly, while Huntsman managed his state budgets, he called on increase funds from the federal reserve, including more than $14 billion in stimulus spending for the state, which he believed needed to be bigger.
Such information is by no means determinative of how the governors will handle the federal treasury once in office. But it can also be said that the GOP has a long tradition of promising fiscal responsibility and delivering something different. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush all left office with bigger deficits, as a percentage of GDP, than they had when they arrived.