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Let's talk deficits 

Thanks nearly altogether to Republicans, the stars are aligned for the voters this year to get a treat they've never before enjoyed, a healthy ventilation of the issue of federal budget deficits.

That does not mean they will get it because it would assume a measure of candor by politicians, which is no more in vogue than it ever was. But a frank colloquy on deficits and their causes might be unavoidable this year because the economic crisis and the frenzied teabagger movement have put deficits and the debt on the front burner of the election season. Everyone seems suddenly to be alarmed by the deficits and the potential for havoc if the world loses confidence in the ability of the United States to pay its bills.

When Republican leaders cajoled Rep. John Boozman into giving up his comfortable sinecure in the House and running for the Senate, they made the Arkansas Senate race the perfect venue for the deficit debate — but in the Republican primary, not the general election. Boozman and Senator Blanche Lincoln are hardly distinguishable on the issue of deficits; she has a trifle better record on holding down deficits, but they have voted in sync on all but a handful of the issues that brought on the avalanche of debt since 2001.

If you cut taxes and revenues but don't cut spending it produces deficits. Republicans never acknowledge that truth but the voters will get it if there's a good debate. Boozman and Lincoln voted for the big tax cuts of 2001, 2002 and 2004; he also voted for the big tax bonanza for investors in 2003 but she at least could not stomach that one, and by 2005, with the deficit ballooning, she began to vote against renewal of some of the tax cuts for the rich and corporations. Boozman voted for every one of them.

Meantime, both voted for the Middle East wars and the huge military expenditures financed by borrowing, and both voted to greatly expand Medicare benefits and insurance subsidies without paying for them either through taxes or spending cuts. Both voted for the big bank bailout but because it was going to save the jobs of union workers they voted against the bailout of the automakers. Both voted for the George Bush stimulus program in 2002 but they split on the Barack Obama stimulus plan of 2009, she for it and Boozman against it.

A Boozman-Lincoln race will be a snoozer, and especially if they talk about deficits. The Republican primary should be different.

Until Boozman got in the race, the huge Republican field was mostly a Greek chorus, chanting the same platitudes about deficits, taxes and big government. But now they have a target, though it could be a tar baby. All of them, including Boozman, are on the same page in their aversion to immigrants, gays, union workers, environmentalists and abortions, but on deficits they can show some separation, if they dare.

First, they will have to get around a few historical facts. Deficits, at least for the past half-century, have been largely Republican phenomena. Here is the record of the average yearly deficit recorded by each administration since 1961. I've helpfully put the Democrats in italics.

Kennedy-Johnson: $8 billion.
Nixon-Ford: $34 billion
Jimmy Carter: $58 billion
Ronald Reagan: $192 billion
George H. W. Bush: $310 billion
Bill Clinton: $92 billion
George W. Bush: $610 billion

Those were the real or on-budget deficits, before Social Security and Medicare surpluses were subtracted.

So the candidates can have but one effective strategy, which is to show how they would have behaved differently from Boozman or Lincoln, who contributed to George W. Bush's record deficits. (As a member of the House, Lincoln voted for the measures that dramatically trimmed the deficits and produced four surpluses under Clinton, but that's ancient history.)

They will not want to criticize Boozman for voting for tax cuts for the rich and corporations, which were the principal causes of the exploding deficits between 2001 and 2008, and probably not for voting for wars since they are all for war, but won't they be all over him for domestic spending like expanding Medicare to cover drugs and subsidize insurance companies' lucrative Advantage plans?

The easy ones will be earmarks, the congressional pork projects every member of Congress loves to announce. For 2008-09 alone Boozman sponsored $101 million in earmarks, often in league with Senator Lincoln. Gilbert Baker and Jim Holt have already announced they wouldn't allow any projects for Arkansas if they go to the Senate, although as a state senator Baker has gotten far more than his share of earmarks. Holt and Curtis Coleman would eliminate or cap farm subsidies. Boozman and Lincoln are champions of subsidies; Boozman's campaign treasurer, Stanley Reed, personally took more than $5 million in government assistance over 10 years.

Only Jim Holt has seized the opportunity. He said over the weekend that he would oppose all federal spending except warmaking and interstate highways. No more Social Security, Medicare, primary and secondary highways, school aid, deposit insurance, financial regulation, law enforcement, farm aid — nothing. That's a real choice, not an echo.
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