Historical Perspective on the Politics of Debt

Twenty five years ago, when Congress was locked in a fierce debate about the rising budget deficits of the Reagan years, a conservative House member named Newt Gingrich derided his fellow Republican, Senator Bob Dole, as the tax collector for the welfare state.

It was a sign of the times, but the deficits of those years were trifling compared to those of today and the debate will soon be on about what to do about them.

What drove Gingrich's characterization of Dole was the tendency of some Republicans, confronted with mushrooming spending on benefit programs prized by Democrats, to agree to large tax increases to pay for them.

But Republican efforts to rein in spending on Social Security and Medicare — the two big drivers of the growing debt — have repeatedly a) failed and b) made them ripe targets for Democratic attacks: Witness George W. Bush's failed effort to reform Social Security by partially privatizing it.

Democrats, fresh from creating a new health care entitlement, no doubt sense they have set yet another trap for Republicans. If Republicans resist heavy new taxes to offset the deficits, they will have to support the kinds of serious benefit cuts the public has repeatedly gagged on in the past.

But public alarm about spending has never been as intense as it is today. Some Republicans, such as Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has a serious plan involving serious cuts, are betting it will be different this time.

We'll see.

Brit Hume is the senior political analyst for Fox News Channel.