Stereotypical thinking about political parties is often just flat inaccurate

When it comes to race, gender and ethnicity, we are urged to guard against stereotypical thinking. But how about when it comes to presidents? How about when it comes to political parties?

Stereotypical thinking about political parties is extremely powerful and often highly misleading, unfair and just flat inaccurate. Read the following sentences slowly and carefully.

Scoring the last eight presidential terms according to the spending that occurred under the budget signed by that president, federal spending increased at the fastest rate during the first Reagan term (an increase of 8.7 percent). It went up the second fastest during the second term of George W. Bush (8.1 percent). It went up the slowest during the current term of Barack Obama (1.4 percent.) The second and third slowest periods of federal spending growth occurred under the two terms of Bill Clinton.

These numbers from this piece by Rex Nutting, who writes for MarketWatch, which is an arm of the Wall Street Journal. They are based on Congressional Budget Office numbers.

In case you don’t click through, here are the graphics from Nutting/MarketWatch:

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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/24/2012 - 11:09 am.

    Allocation of resources

    The real question is what proportion of Federal spending went to the military under each regime?
    I suspect that that would account for a large portion of the difference.
    Also the state of the economy. Government spending increases during economic downtimes; the dip in spending under Clinton may reflect a healthy economy with low unemployment.

  2. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/24/2012 - 11:43 am.

    Wildly Innaccurate

    The Marketwatch piece is very flawed. It wants to put all of the 2009 spending in W Bush’s pile, regardless of when that spending was approved. Therefore the large stimulus bill that was created after Obama’s inauguration belongs to W Bush, as do various bailouts and other payments. This adds up to over a trillion dollars! It doesn’t make sense to blame any of this on Bush. (And the chart up there is inaccurate. The stimulus alone was about $800 billion. The chart looks to be adding about $100 billion.)
    But put that aside, we were told that the stimulus and various other anti-recession measures were one time only. Marketwatch is treating them as the new normal.
    Look at it this way, let’s say you have a monthly car payment of $200. Something happens and you have to spend $1000 on repairs. Do yo then treat your monthly car budget as $1200 or is it still $200? According to Marketwatch, any monthly bill of less than $1200 counts as a reduction in spending. Go ahead and trick out the car, you’re *saving* money! Does that make sense? Is it an honest argument?
    W Bush and his GOP congresses were terrible on spending. Obama and his Dem congresses have been worse. You can use some slight of hand to obscure this, but that’s all you’re doing.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 05/24/2012 - 02:17 pm.

      Peder, you’re wrong

      The piece addresses the stimulus and assigns the appropriate portion to Obama, not Bush. Recall a couple of things about the stimulus: First, about 40% of the stimulus was tax cuts, not spending increases. This piece looks at spending only. Second, the spending provisions in the bill were spread out over multiple years. Third, the federal fiscal year ends on September 30, so there only about 7 months of stimulus spending that counted towards the FY09 figure.

  3. Submitted by Ross Williams on 05/24/2012 - 12:37 pm.

    Media Stereotypes

    The stereotype of Republicans and Democrats has always been a media creation. It serves both parties. Democrats portray themselves to supporters as the advocates of activist government. Republicans portray themselves as supporters of lower taxes. The Democrats have no interest in a message in the media that defends their record as cutters of government programs and the Republicans have no interest in their record supporting increases in government spending.

    The real differences between the two parties are over how money is spent and who pays for it, not how much is spent. But that is too complex a discussion for the media to handle.

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/24/2012 - 12:43 pm.

    Did I hear the sound of empty heads exploding ??

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/24/2012 - 12:44 pm.

    Another Chart

    This one seems to be a better approach to the actual picture too:
    Spending really has increased by a massive amount under Obama’s watch.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 05/24/2012 - 07:44 pm.

      Wildly inaccurate

      Peder, I guess I can give you credit for citing a link in this comment, as opposed to the unsupported and erroneous claims in your first comment that Nutting attributes the stimulus to Bush (he doesn’t) or that the stimulus spent $800 billion (it was only around $500B – the rest was tax cuts). Unfortunately, the article you cite isn’t any more accurate.

      The article makes two arguments in recalculating spending by each president. First, that Nuttig should have adjusted for inflation, and second, that the $410B budget Obama signed in March 2009 should not have been attributed to Bush.

      Other than the first couple of years of Reagan’s first term, inflation has been under control and I don’t know how inflation alone would account for such a different outcome from what Nutting came up with. I would have to see the raw numbers to figure it out, though. That article just came out, so I am sure that someone will pick it apart eventually.

      The March 2009 budget is (and should be) attributed to Bush because its Bush’s budget. Its a budget that covered October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009 – four months of which Bush, and not Obama, was president. In theory, budgets should be passed before the period the budget covers begins, but with the federal government that doesn’t always happen, and in an election year in 2008, it did not. If you attribute that budget to Obama, that means Bush will only have three budgets on his second term ledger, and Obama will have five on his. If you calculate each president the same way – with the outgoing president’s last budget covering most of the new president’s first year – this is the budget that Bush left for Obama.

      There was some controversy when this budget was passed and signed because a lot of pork was added to it – about two percent of the total amount. If you wanted to argue that this amount should be attributed to Obama, that would be a fair argument. But to attribute Bush’s last budget to Obama just because Bush (and congress to be fair) didn’t pass the budget is absurd.

      The sad part is that the guy who wrote this article – James Pethokoukis – is not a hack (well, maybe that depends on how you define hack) and writes for U.S. News and World Report. He knows very well how the budgeting process works, yet he is essentially lying about it to make his argument. Even sadder is that most people won’t take the time to understand that he is lying (or don’t care), and will simply repeat his argument because it fits their worldview.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/24/2012 - 02:59 pm.

    Define “…worse”

    Indeed, stereotypes abound in regard to both political parties. The Democrats’ “Big Tent” makes is difficult for them to reach coherent policy positions sometimes, and a case could be made that “What makes a Democrat” is subject to considerable revision, depending upon what area of the country and what time period you happen to be talking about.

    The Republican “Big Tent” has demonstrably shrunk quite a bit in the past decade or two, but as an admitted outsider, I’m still not quite persuaded that the “Republican Moderate” is a species that has become extinct, though it may be in hiding from time to time in the current political climate.

    Much of what gets labeled as “Republican” nowadays is more anarchist (there are no societies operating by “libertarian” principles, nor will there be) or neofascist (knee-jerk patriotism toward a society that’s at least half-populated by people you despise should make flag-waving awkward, but it doesn’t seem to), or simply plutocratic. None of those three approaches to the civic arena would have been greeted with much enthusiasm by mainstream Republicans of the past.

    In similar fashion, as Eric has pointed out, labeling the Democrats as the party of “tax and spend” paints with rather a too-broad brush as well. Right-wing icons Reagan and Bush 43 were hardly paragons of fiscal virtue, and Bush 43 comes close to being the antithesis of fiscal conservatism. The “bailouts and other payments” that Mr. DeFor would like to put on Obama’s shoulders entirely were, in fact, created and written, for the most part, under Bush 43. With the country poised on the brink of fiscal calamity thanks to the “free market,” something needed to be done to stabilize an economy moving into intensive care. The $800 billion stimulus was – according to most accounts I’ve read, by economists of both left and right – too small, and it wasn’t Obama’s idea. Creation came on the Bush 43 watch, with Obama merely the enabler. I’m OK with that – the prospect of living in a cardboard box under a Minneapolis bridge because the economy has collapsed doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Perhaps Mr. DeFor is in better financial shape than most of us. If so, that would explain his position.

    I’d argue that Obama and this GOP Congress can’t have been worse than Bush because the GOP Congress has blocked Obama initiatives at every opportunity, and continues to do so. Obama may WANT to spend more, but a Congress interested more in campaign money than the nation’s welfare has prevented that – except in a few cases that benefit big business at the expense of ordinary citizens. Oil company subsidies come readily to mind…

  7. Submitted by Edward Lotterman on 05/24/2012 - 03:00 pm.

    Adding the stimulus to Obama’s first year is the error.

    Mr. Defor makes an erroneous argument that Ann Coulter and other commentators made, but it shows an ignorance of how deficits are tabulated. Yes, a near-$800 stimulus bill was passed in fiscal-year 2009. But hardly any money was actually paid out in that FY. That was one of the big arguments against it, that there were not enough “shovel-ready” projects for the money to be spent on. Actual deficits for a particular FY depend on “outlays,” not “authorizations” or “appropriations.” So claiming that $800 million of the FY 2009 deficit is due to the stimulus is just plain wrong.

    The Congressional Budget Office did a study that showed initiatives from the Obama administration increased the FY 2009 deficit by about $280 billion compared to what it would have been if there had been NO legislation passed changing either taxes or spending. So yes, it also would be an error to start the count at FY 2010, the first year for which Obama actually submitted a budget. But some of the increased spending for that year was additional military outlays, which the Bush 43 administration always tried to hide by low-balling defense in the budget itself and then coming back with an emergency “supplemental” request for money to fund things that were clear to everyone 10 months earlier.

    It is also true that George Bush left office without having signed the last of several appropriations bills. Some thus say that all of that bill is an “increase” that should be attributed to Obama. But no one with any knowlege of what was in that bill would be so dumb as to argue that if Bush had stayed in office or that if John McCain had won that none of that money would have been spent. It was largely bread-and-butter things that congressional Republicans also supported. Bush’s failure to sign the bill was just another manifestation of how he was mentally AWOL the last five months of his term.

    Anyone interested in looking at the actual numbers should download the Excel tables B-78 and B-80 from recent issues of Economic Report of the President. The FY 2009 deficit came in at $1.413 trillion. Take away the $280 billion the CBO says were due to Obama administration initiatives and you have a $1.133 trillion deficit. Calculate the changes and percentage increases in outlays under Reagan and Bush 43 still top the charts.

    One other factor that people ignore is the fact that both personal and corporate income tax revenues in a given fiscal year vary largely with incomes of the preceding year. FY 2009 revenues are from income earned in Calendar Year 2008. We were already slipping into recession in 2008, but it was not as bad as 2009. So the differing effects of the recession over those years explain part of why FY 2010 came in with a bigger deficit than 2009.

    In defense of Bush, he did not come in with large additional spending, just the mild stimulus that gave everyone a tax rebate and spent a little. Most of the big deficit increase from FY 2008 to FY 2009 came from a $419 bilion drop in tax revenues, Social Security went up $66 billion, Medicare $29 billion and so on. There was a $102 billion increase in “income security.” This was largely increased unemployment compensation payments and food stamps. This nearly all was under existing legislation and would have taken place whoever was president in 2009 unless they had gone to Congress to repeal programs that had been in place for 40-60 years.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/24/2012 - 03:43 pm.

      Argument B

      Would you care to comment on the second part of my argument? The one about us treating the emergency anti-recession stuff as the new normal? I was skeptical of the stimulus back when it happened. If you told me that it would become the new baseline, I would have been vehemently against it.

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/24/2012 - 03:08 pm.

    If you torture the data long enough,

    it will confess to anything.

    The only numbers that matter are the current debt and the current deficit. The debt is now $16 trillion, $5 trillon of it coming in the threee years since Obama became president. The deficit is $1.5 trillion a year for as far as the eye can see.

    And if anybody is really delusional enough to think that the democrats are the “fiscal conservatives,” Google any news story about any government budget battle for any state in the union or in the federal government and in every case the disagreement is because the democrats want to spend more and the republicans want to spend less.

    The End

  9. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 05/24/2012 - 03:33 pm.


    The biggest difference between Democrats and Republicans is values. What is the most important value, equality or freedom? If a person says equality, then it requires a big, powerful government to enforce equality and “spread the wealth around.” If a person says freedom, then it requires a small government that stays out of the way and is limited to the powers listed in the Constitution. Usually, Democrats want high taxes and the spending needed to keep the government big and powerful to do its “Robin Hood thing.” But sometimes Republicans want high taxes and the spending, too, needed to keep freedom. So you can’t tell from taxes and spending who is who. It is the relationship to government that makes the difference.

    • Submitted by Dave Eischens on 05/24/2012 - 06:52 pm.

      Might I posit that equality is “a” value of Democrats

      but I think a more core value is the belief that we’re all in this thing called “life” together. It’s not so much every person for themselves as being part of a nation and a society, a community, neighborhood, family.

      In each of those units of measure there is a commons which Democrats believe is important to maintain and grow for the benefit of society as a whole. Importantly in each of those units there’s a moral responsibility to help others when needed because they’ll be there to help us when needed. Also there’s a moral responsibility to put a check on others that are causing harm. Government (by the people) is a formalization of that.

      So from that perspective, taxes are not “theft” but more the “price” that we pay for civilization.

      Perhaps off topic but it’s interesting to ponder the correlation, if any, of today’s historically low tax rates with the amount of civility in our society.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 05/25/2012 - 08:11 am.

      Common error

      You’re making a common error in terminology by speaking as if what is “equal” and what is “equitable” are the same thing. They are not. Those few letters make a big difference. Most Democrats are interested in working towards equity, or fairness.

      Here is an article that lays out the differences between the two terms pretty nicely:

  10. Submitted by Rich Crose on 05/24/2012 - 04:06 pm.

    Don’t forget those Socialist Republicans

    Reagan bought out the Savings and Loan Industry and Bush bought up the banking industry, the insurance industry and Freddie and Fannie Mae.

    Those actions make Obama look like Herbert Hoover. Yet which party are they calling Socialist?

  11. Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/24/2012 - 08:48 pm.

    The big joke about “Republicans”

    the majority who vote republican don’t make enough money to be republicans and never will.

  12. Submitted by Tim Droogsma on 05/25/2012 - 12:31 am.

    So dishonest

    It’s hard to believe anyone – let alone someone as smart as Eric Black – could take Nutting’s column seriously. In order to believe that Obama has flattened the spending curve you have to take a 3/4-of-a-trillion dollar “stimulus” bill that was:

    A) Proposed by Obama in 2009
    B) Passed by Congress in 2009
    C) Signed into law by Obama

    …and assign that spending to Obama’s predecessor, then use that as an artificial baseline for future years. Peter Defor and Dennis Tester have it exactly right: The Obama Administration’s spending has added roughly $5 trillion to our national debt and endangered the very future of the country.

    The Nutting column is very convincingly dismantled in a number of places, including:

    and here:

    Fortunately, most people understand that trying to portray Obama as fiscally conservative is like trying to portray the current Twins’ infield as competent. Black and Nutting want us to believe them instead of our own “lying eyes,” but it’s a pretty tough sell.

  13. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/25/2012 - 08:25 am.

    One Time Spending

    So the ’emergency’ anti-recession spending really is permanent, huh? Let’s remember that the next time it’s proposed.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/25/2012 - 09:26 am.

      The fact remains

      that spending -authorized- in 2009 was not actually spent for at least another year.
      Any money actually spent in 2009 was authorized earlier.

      • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/25/2012 - 12:57 pm.

        And now we get to spend it year after year after year. Endless stimulus. Somehow I don’t remember being told that back when it was being debated.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/25/2012 - 09:17 am.

    We are the wealthiest country on the planet

    Actually all this hand wringing about government spending is a manufactured argument. The fact is we are the largest economy on the planet, twice as large as the next largest economy. We can afford our government expenditures, and there’s nothing inherently “bad” about such expenditures. You can worry about the debt if want, but just remember the debt is created by our failure to pay for our expenditures, not because expenditures themselves are unsustainable. Finland manages to pay for it’s government services, much more generous than our, with a little more than half our GDP per capita.

    This is just another form of the nonsensical “big government” argument. Such arguments are inherently incoherent because no ideal or appropriate “size” of government has ever been determined, nor can such a determination even be imagined. The concept itself is incoherent because it has no definition. What dose “size” mean? You want your government larger than a garage but smaller than the moon? How many employees do think the government should have? How much square space should it occupy? How much of the GDP should government spending account for? What exactly should the budget be? No one has ever even tried to answer these questions in any intelligent fashion… we just have a bunch of people who always say: “smaller”.

    Obviously the only rational debate is about what we think the government should and should not be doing. The size of the government is determined by what we have it do, and the budget is determined by the cost of doing what want it to do. Deficits are created by a failure to actually pay for government expenditures, i.e. insufficient tax revenue. We can afford these expenditures, and we can pay off the debt to whatever degree we want… but you have to pay, the idea that all of this will somehow get paid for without sufficient tax revenue is simply magical thinking. So to is it magical thinking to assume you can control an undefined quality like the “size” of the government by simply manipulating tax rates. The function of taxes are to pay for government, not control it’s “size”. Since there is no such thing as magic, all Republican tax cuts have EVER delivered is huge deficits and economic recessions.

  15. Submitted by r batnes on 05/25/2012 - 01:31 pm.

    Excuse me?

    “Usually, Democrats want high taxes and the spending needed to keep the government big and powerful to do its “Robin Hood thing.” But sometimes Republicans want high taxes and the spending, too, needed to keep freedom. So you can’t tell from taxes and spending who is who.”____________________-This might be one of the most disingenuous statements I have ever read here. No Rosalind…your party has made fiscal responsibility a tenant of its core philosophy. Spending is spending…pure and simple. Placing the word “freedom” next to it (another concept that the Right has hijacked in recent years), does not give you special dispensation to rationalize the hypocrisy that your party has consistently demonstrated regarding their own lack of fiscal restraint.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/26/2012 - 08:55 am.

    Tax cuts are expenditures

    Someone should point out that all these Republican tax cuts have actually been one of the biggest government expenditures on the books. You have to remember, the government is borrowing the money you’re getting back in your refund, as well as the money it’s spending in lieu of non-existent tax revenue. When you cut taxes but increase spending, as Reagan and the Bushes did, you actually have to finance the tax cuts. Again, since there’s no such thing as magic, money doesn’t simply materialize, a lesson Tony Sutton has recently taught the MNGOP.

    The difference be Democrats and Republicans is Democrats know when they’re creating or enlarging the Deficit while Republicans always expect something else to happen. Bill Clinton said it best when asked once what is the difference between Republican and Democrat budget plans, his answer: “Arithmetic”.

    While it’s ironic that the “business” party which claims all the financial acumen appears to rely on magic and or basic accounting/economic ignorance, one should entertain the possibility that on some level Republicans aren’t as stupid as they would have to be to promote their agenda. While some certainly buy into the magic plan, others may not be so gullible. I actually believe the huge deficits themselves are deliberately created as part of a Republican “shock doctrine” that promotes perpetual crises. Crises becomes the excuse for all manner of policy and economic agendas, and the public is always more vulnerable during crises. On this level Republican leadership is deliberately creating huge deficits in order to manufacture crises; therefore arguments about spending are themselves nonsensical because they erroneously assume all parties are trying to avoid huge deficits. The “big” government arguments here are merely a distraction that obscures real agenda. Naomi Kline’s book: “The Shock Doctrine” is fine read regarding this strategy if anyone’s interested.

  17. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 05/26/2012 - 09:07 am.

    WaPo Factcheck

    Rates the whole deal as three Pinochios.

  18. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/29/2012 - 09:27 am.


    Yes, it’s clear that Carney made the usual political overstatements.
    One thing missing from the WaPo analysis is the extent to which recent increases in Federal spending are due to increases in safety net spending due to unemployment.
    The other thing is that the analysis tapdances around the fact the by far the biggest increase is from 2008 to 2009; the last Bush budget. Yes, it’s true that the president does not have to spend all of the funds allocated, but this is usually a minor factor. The wheels were already turning when Obama took office.

  19. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/29/2012 - 10:28 am.

    The particular blind spot that Republicans have is that they never see military spending as “wasteful government spending,” only spending that might put money in the pockets of ordinary people. Thus unemployment compensation, food stamps, and Medicare are “wasteful government spending,” while building weapons systems against enemies who don’t exist is “necessary.”

    Thus, in their minds, borrowing nearly $1 trillion over the past 10 years to keep the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions and occupations going somehow doesn’t create deficits, nor does giving the super-rich the lowest tax rates since the 1920s have anything to do with unbalanced budgets.

    When confronted, they resort to flimsy arguments, such as “National defense is provided for in the Constitution” (never mind that both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions rest on dubious grounds or that the Constitution nowhere says, “Congress shall appropriate even more money to the military than it asks for”). Another is, “Even if you confiscated all the wealth of the 1% it wouldn’t pay off the national debt,” as if anyone was proposing paying it off all at once.

    The blind spot that I see in rank-and-file Democrats is that they believe that their party is more progressive and left than it actually is. During the health care debate, for example, I encountered many people who thought that Obama was trying to institute a single-payer plan, when his plan was actually modeled on Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan. Unfortunately, most mainstream national Democrats, including the ones that the right-wing media love to hate, are in the same ideological territory as Nixon 1972, and for a Democrat to believe otherwise is to risk disappointment.

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