By PAUL KRUGMAN
Quick quiz: What’s a good five-letter description of Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, that ends in “y”?
The obvious choice is, of course, “bully.” But as a recent debate over the state’s budget reveals, “phony” is an equally valid answer. And as Mr. Christie goes, so goes his party.
Until now the attack of the fiscal phonies has been mainly a national rather than a state issue, with Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, as the prime example. As regular readers of this column know, Mr. Ryan has somehow acquired a reputation as a stern fiscal hawk despite offering budget proposals that, far from being focused on deficit reduction, are mainly about cutting taxes for the rich while slashing aid to the poor and unlucky. In fact, once you strip out Mr. Ryan’s “magic asterisks” — claims that he will somehow increase revenues and cut spending in ways that he refuses to specify — what you’re left with are plans that would increase, not reduce, federal debt.
The same can be said of Mitt Romney, who claims that he will balance the budget but whose actual proposals consist mainly of huge tax cuts (for corporations and the wealthy, of course) plus a promise not to cut defense spending.
Both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney, then, are fake deficit hawks. And the evidence for their fakery isn’t just their bad arithmetic; it’s the fact that for all their alleged deep concern over budget gaps, that concern isn’t sufficient to induce them to give up anything — anything at all — that they and their financial backers want. They’re willing to snatch food from the mouths of babes (literally, via cuts in crucial nutritional aid programs), but that’s a positive from their point of view — the social safety net, says Mr. Ryan, should not become “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” Maintaining low taxes on profits and capital gains, and indeed cutting those taxes further, are, however, sacrosanct.
Still, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Romney are playing to a national audience. Are Republican governors, who have to deal with real budget constraints, different? Well, there have been many claims to that effect; Mr. Christie, in particular, has been widely held up, not least by himself, as an example of a politician willing to make tough choices.
But last week we got to see him facing an actual tough choice — and aside from the yelling-at-people thing, he proved himself just another standard fiscal phony.
Here’s the story: For some time now Mr. Christie has been touting what he calls the “Jersey comeback.” Even before his latest outburst, it was hard to see what he was talking about: yes, there have been some job gains in the McMansion State since Mr. Christie took office, but they have lagged gains both in the nation as a whole and in New York and Connecticut, the obvious points of comparison.
Yet Mr. Christie has been adamant that New Jersey is on the way back, and that this makes room for, you guessed it, tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit the wealthy.
Last week reality hit: David Rosen, the state’s independent, nonpartisan budget analyst, told legislators that the state faces a $1.3 billion shortfall. How did the governor respond?
First, by attacking the messenger. According to Mr. Christie, Mr. Rosen — a veteran public servant whose office usually makes more accurate budget forecasts than the state’s governor — is “the Dr. Kevorkian of the numbers.” Civility!
By the way, even Mr. Christie’s own officials are predicting a major budget shortfall, just not quite as big. And the two big credit-rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, have recently issued warnings about New Jersey’s budget situation, which S.& P. called “structurally unbalanced” because of the governor’s optimistic revenue assumptions.
New Jersey, then, is still in dire fiscal shape. So is our tough-talking governor willing to reconsider his pet tax cut? Fuhgeddaboudit. Instead, he wants to fill the hole with one-shot budget gimmicks, including reneging on a promise to reduce borrowing for transportation investment and diverting funds from clean-energy programs. So much for fiscal responsibility.
Will Mr. Christie’s budget temper tantrum end speculation that he might become Mr. Romney’s running mate? I have no idea. But it really doesn’t matter: whoever Mr. Romney picks, he or she will cheerfully go along with the budget-busting, reverse Robin Hood policies that you know are coming if the former governor wins.
For the modern American right doesn’t care about deficits, and never did. All that talk about debt was just an excuse for attacking Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps. And as for Mr. Christie, well, he’s just another fiscal phony, distinguished only by his fondness for invective.