The GOP v. Democrats, Round 1: The National Debt

Believe it or not, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when moderates walked the halls of Congress and the policies of the the two parties overlapped––which meant that the passage of legislation was not only possible, it was commonplace.  Then the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, and that was the tipping point. Conservative Southern Democrats began to cross the aisle, the Southern Democrats who didn’t were beaten, and once-fertile legislative ground was displaced by a yawning, barren gap.  (See Notes below.)

Now it appears that representatives from here the two parties can barely speak to each other, and the passage of an actual bill is a media-worthy event.  On the other side of the coin, to borrow a phrase, it’s easier to tell the parties apart, or rather it’s easier for the two parties to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters.

In particular, we’re often told that Republican administrations are better at stimulating the economy and cutting the deficit.  If punditry and campaign rhetoric are indicators, the Democrats appear to have turned the cheek on both accounts, but they claim they’re the better job creators.  Which party are voters to believe?  Are the Republicans really better at stimulating the economy (see “Trickle Down: The Lost Alternative”) and cutting the deficit, and are the Democrats better “job creators,” or not?

The Other Side of Obvious is like a foster home for skeptics; we’re not inclined to believe anything we’re told by politicians or pundits or pedicurists or anybody else.  If the position or the assertion appear to be nonsensical, then we try to make sense of it.  If it’s testable, then we use simple, commonly accepted metrics to test it.

This is the first article of three that compares the relative economic performance of the last three Republican administrations against the last three Democratic administrations.  Each article uses a single criterion––in this case the reduction or containment of the federal budget deficit.  The next two articles measure relative stock-market and job performance over the same period of time.

For the purpose of this first comparison, we researched the incoming and exit deficits of each presidential administration since fiscal year 1978, when Jimmy Carter approved his first federal budget.  The comparison ends on September 30, 2018, which was the last day of the last fiscal budget approved by Barack Obama.

The incoming and outgoing federal deficits by administration over the forty-year period were as follows (in rounded billions):

President  Party   Fiscal Years    Incoming Debt    Exit Debt    Increase   Percent

Carter       Dem.     1978-1982                $772                $1,142          $370          48%           

Reagan      Rep.      1983-1990             $1,142               $3,233        $2,091       183%

Bush I        Rep.      1991-1994              $3233               $4,693        $1,459         45%

Clinton      Dem.     1995-2002             $4,693               $6,228        $1,535         33%

Bush II      Rep.       2003-2010             $6,228             $13,562        $7,333       118%

Obama      Dem.     2011-2018           $13,562             $21,735        $7,813         58%

Reading across the top line, the chart shows that President Carter inherited a national debt of $772 billion.  The debt had reached $1.142 billion by the end his last budget year, which was an increase of $370 billion, or 48% more than the debt he inherited.

In aggregate, the data tell us that the national debt increased by $10,884 billion during the last three Republican administrations and by $9,719 billion during the last three Democratic administrations.  In other words, Republican presidents increased the national debt by $1.16 trillion more than Democratic presidents, or a mere $58 billion per year.

In the same period, the average Republican administration increased the national debt by 115%, and the average Democratic administration increased the national debt by 46%.

Draw your own conclusions.

Unless the moon is indeed made of cheese, the Republicans will yell foul and produce their own “unbiased” analysis.  That is not to say that Democrats use proven, unbiased data, and Republicans get theirs from a twelve-year-old “statistician” who flunked math and who happens to be the daughter of an NRA lobbyist.  Sadly, the politicians in both parties appear to be equally skilled in the arts of exaggeration, manipulation of data, and use of well-known logical fallacies.  If, however, you have qualms about the result, then change the dates, find a better barometer, and run your own numbers.  The Republicans will doubtless be grateful––if you can produce a materially different result.

It can also be argued that White House occupancy is a poor basis for comparison because Congress passes the budget and the president merely approves it.  In fact, the executive branch creates the budget at the president’s direction, he and Congress negotiate it, the president signs the final bill, and then he manages federal expenditures for the entirety of the fiscal year.

Full disclosure:  Despite the passage of the recent tax cut, the federal debt is expected to increase by a relatively modest 22.5% over the next four fiscal years.  If the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) forecast holds, the federal debt will exceed $26 trillion by then, or about $77,000 per US citizen, including children, the unemployed, retirees, and bloggers.


1)  According to The Economist, only one Congressional legislator from the great state of Georgia was a Republican in 1981, a promising young man named Newt Gingrich.  As of this writing, the Georgia delegation is 100% Republican.

2)  The forty-year period beginning with the Carter presidency in 1977 and ending with the Obama presidency was not chosen at random.  The first use of the term “post-industrial society” was attributed to Alain Touraine in 1969.  A comparable analysis of the Second Industrial Age would begin circa 1850 and end circa 1970.

3)  Between 1977 and 2017, Republican presidents occupied the White House for twenty years and Democratic presidents occupied the White House for twenty years.  In both cases, two presidents served two terms and one president served one.

4)  The sources for the budget deficits and other data are the US government and Statista.  Nothing in this article came from Cambridge Analytica.

5)  Their claims notwithstanding, neither party produced an annual budget surplus except for the last two fiscal years of the Clinton administration.  That’s 38 years of deficits versus two years of surpluses.

6)  For the record, yr. hmbl. srvnt. has been a proud Independent since 1973.  I’m not fond of either party, although I’m currently less fond of one than the other.  (See About Us.)

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