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The Con Game of Blame

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, March 26, 2009

As Barack Obama's economic advisers confront choices that vary from bad to worse in their mission to revive the financial sector and the broader economy, it is worth remembering that those choices were in essence inherited by the president, who is still new to his office. Listening to his critics, especially on the right, it would be easy to believe that the president is personally responsible for ballooning deficits, gigantic bailouts, ridiculous bonuses, nationalized institutions and careening markets. It would be easy to believe but entirely false -- and merely the latest episode in an old political con game that is all too typical of Washington.

Ever since Election Day 2008, the usual suspects have been hard at work, deflecting responsibility from the Bush administration (and the Republicans in Congress) for the catastrophic effects of conservative policy enacted during the past eight years. Within days after Mr. Obama's victory, as stock prices fell, radio host and ideological commissar Rush Limbaugh exclaimed that we were already in the “Obama recession.”

In fact, the economy had been shrinking for nearly a year by then, and the market was responding to bad economic news rather than the election result.

But facts are inconvenient for propaganda -- especially when politicians and pundits are seeking to escape blame for policies that have failed.

Among the boldest perpetrators of this con game over the past few decades is Mr. Limbaugh, who shares with his fellow Republicans a peculiar method of timing the blame for economic woe. When he was flacking for the first President Bush back in 1992, he wrote: “The worst economic period in the last 50 years was under Jimmy Carter, which led to the 1981-82 recession, a recession more punishing than the current one.” But of course the president during the 1982 recession was not named Carter; that president was the sainted Ronald Reagan.

In January 1981, Reagan took the oath, and within his first three months had rammed through a budget that contained his historic “supply-side” tax cuts. Reagan budget director David Stockman had created computer simulations supposedly showing that those tax cuts would result in 5 percent growth in gross domestic product during the following year. Years later, when simulation failed to materialize as reality, Mr. Stockman referred cynically to that prediction as the “rosy scenario” -- and admitted that it was essentially a fraud. Contrary to the rosy scenario, 1982 was the worst year since the Great Depression, with negative growth of 2.2 percent.

According to conservative theory, the mere announcement of massive tax cuts for the rich by a Republican president ought to have stimulated euphoria in the markets and rapid growth. And according to that same theory, as explicated by Mr. Limbaugh, the prospect of a Democratic president with a progressive agenda was what drove the markets down last autumn.

But there is a double standard at work here. When a Democrat is elected president, he is responsible for economic contraction even if he has yet to be inaugurated for three months. When a Republican is actually president, he need not be held responsible, even well after he takes office.

If that strikes you as inconsistent, then you are beginning to notice how blatant deception passes for conservative ideology. But the deception is even worse than it appears at first glance.

The same Republicans in Congress and on the radio who lionize the late Reagan now complain bitterly about the tax increases on the wealthy in President Obama's budget. What they never mention is that their conservative idol, faced with the recession that they blamed on his predecessor, likewise raised taxes during an economic slump.

Terrified by the looming deficits that resulted from the supply-side tax cuts, the Reagan administration rolled back many of the cuts just a year after they had passed -- instituting what then amounted to the largest tax increase in American history. Those tax hikes took back about a third of the cuts legislated in 1981. But that historic tax increase is never mentioned when Republican legislators invoke Reagan -- and they still love to blame Mr. Carter for their hero's recession.

So even as critics roast President Obama and his Treasury secretary, honesty requires that they acknowledge that the problems faced by President Obama and Mr. Geithner are not of their making. He has held office since Jan. 20 -- and if held to the Reagan standard, he deserves at least a year to begin correcting the Bush recession.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

COPYRIGHT 2009 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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