When Rand Paul took control of the Senate floor just before 6 p.m. Eastern, virtually every one of his Republican colleagues grimaced. Five years ago, they would have cheered him.
Paul’s speech, which slowed attempts to pass a massive budget deal before the government shuts down at midnight, was a savaging of his party – a party that appears to have turned 180 degrees from the deficit hawks of the mid 2010s who insisted that government spending was ballooning out of control and was crippling the country.
“When the Democrats are in power, Republicans appear to be the conservative party,” Paul said at one point. “But when Republicans are in power, it seems there is no conservative party. The hypocrisy hangs in the air and chokes anyone with a sense of decency or intellectual honesty.”
He is 100% right.
The simple fact is that Republicans in the Obama era defined themselves primarily as committed to reducing government spending and shrinking the nation’s debt. The ur-document of that age was Paul Ryan’s budget, in which he proudly touted the need to confront entitlement spending and make the hard cuts necessary to keep the country solvent for the foreseeable future.
“Our debt is a threat to this country,” Ryan said in a 2013 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “We have to tackle this problem before it tackles us.”
He was far from alone. Republicans insisted that any spending legislation – even for disaster relief – be paid for with budget offsets. Every major Republican leader talked about debt and deficit relentlessly.
That focus on deficit reduction and spending restraint bled into the 2016 primary as the top tier candidates – including Paul – championed it. One candidate, however, did not.
That candidate was Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “king of debt.” Trump showed little care or concern for the issue that had animated the party he was running to lead.
So cavalier was Trump about the deficit that Mitt Romney, the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, lambasted him for it in a speech aimed at convincing Republicans to drop Trump.
“His tax plan in combination with his refusal to reform entitlements and honestly address spending would balloon the deficit and the national debt,” said Romney.
And then Trump won. Not just the Republican primary, but the election. And suddenly his priorities – immigration, trade protectionism and a tax cut – became the party’s principles. Curtailing spending and reducing debt went out the window – or at least way down the list of what the GOP cared about. And Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and almost the entire rest of the Republican Party – sans Paul and a handful of House conservatives – went along for the ride.
Which is how it came to pass that just before 6 p.m. Thursday, McConnell was on the Senate floor pleading with his home-state colleague to drop his push for a vote on an amendment that would maintain the current budget caps. Paul’s issue was a simple one: A two-year spending bill that would increase the federal deficit by more than $300 billion was being rammed through at the last minute – and without any amendments being offered.
And he’s right about that too.
The natural result of our current style of governing – lurching from crisis to crisis – is this sort of showdown. Paul is right that it is absolutely ridiculous that a near-700-page piece of legislation that senators got their hands on around midnight Wednesday should be passed by midnight Thursday.
And yet, when you are faced with the possibility of a second government shutdown in the space of 17 days, passing this sort of legislation – whether or not it represents a massive U-turn on the very priorities your party touted just a few years ago – becomes your only option.
Which makes Paul either a principled hero or a misguided Don Quixote – depending on where you stand.
“The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” Paul said. “I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, ‘How come you were against President Obama’s deficits, and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?’ “