Politicians Have Decided to Stop Obsessing Over the Deficit

Maya MacGuineas, center, flanked by Alan Simpson, left, and Erskine Bowles, runs Fix the Debt. Maya MacGuineas, center, flanked by Alan Simpson, left, and Erskine Bowles, runs Fix the Debt. Evan Vucci/AP file photo

After a three-year obsession with closing America's gaping budget hole, Washington, it seems, has moved on.

Last month's budget deal, which put a momentary end to the cliffs and crises that have dominated fiscal policymaking since the tea party came to Congress, coupled with a rapidly shrinking short-term deficit, has driven the nation's budget imbalances quickly and quietly from the agenda.

And no one understands this better than Maya MacGuineas, who runs Fix the Debt, the most vocal anti-deficit group in the capital. Recognizing the new reality, the campaign is reducing its staff, slowing activities, and restructuring itself for a goal that it readily admits is now somewhere over the horizon. One outside ally described the group as going into "hibernation mode."

"We're morphing into a sort of longer-term coalition and changing our structure to reflect the fact that this is going to be a long game," MacGuineas told National Journal. "I hope that something can happen after the midterms, but I think in all likelihood that it doesn't happen until after 2016."

While it's easy to miss the disappearance of something, the change is glaring if you know where to look. You can see it on the House and Senate floors where, last month, Republicans uttered the word "debt" just 225 times, down from 3,188 mentions in July 2011, according to the Sunlight Foundation. You could see it in President Obama's latest State of the Union address, which mentioned budget deficits almost two-thirds fewer times than his 2011 speech.

And you can see it in opinion polling. Among the 20 or so public-policy goals that Pew regularly asks voters to prioritize, reducing the deficit fell faster than any other in the pollster's latest survey, dropping 9 points from January 2013 to January 2014. That put the issue in sixth place, down from third just a year ago.

It's a big change from June 2012, when Pew Research Center President Andy Kohut wrote, "In my years of polling, there has never been an issue such as the deficit on which there has been such a consensus among the public about its importance."

The Can Kicks Back, a spin-off from Fix the Debt aimed at organizing millennials around the issue, is now in debt itself and struggling to stay aloft. "Without fundraising miracles ... I don't know how we both sustain [an] organization and do meaningful things," cofounder Nick Troiano wrote in an internal email obtained by Politico.

MacGuineas says that Fix the Debt still has plenty of money, but that it wants to preserve its resources for a political moment more ripe for a "grand bargain" that would dramatically reduce long-term budget deficits. "People are happy to take a breather," she said, noting that tackling the issue will require difficult choices.

So Fix the Debt is studying what other political movements have done after their issues fell off the agenda, MacGuineas said. She's hoping to learn lessons about staying relevant while in the political wilderness, maybe from the climate-change movement, which kept its head above water even after the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation in 2010.

Alex Lawson, who has often battled with deficit hawks as executive director of Social Security Works, a group working to preserve entitlement programs, admits feeling some schadenfreudeat his ideological foils' struggles. "I won't hide the fact that I've gotten a lot of joy out of watching it," he said. "The grand-bargaineers had a grip on the microphone for so long, and it was like we couldn't talk about any of the other things we need to talk about."

Indeed, as the government's fiscal situation has improved—deficits fell to a seven-year low as a share of the overall economy, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, even though the debt remains enormous—fiscal conservatives have started venturing beyond narrow goals of reducing government spending.

Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan, both potential presidential candidates, are increasingly discussing new ideas to tackle unemployment and reduce poverty. The American Enterprise Institute has taken a lead in developing ideas it hopes will expand the GOP's economic-politics playbook beyond concerns about the size of government.

Democrats, meanwhile, are embracing a strain of economic populism lite that concerns itself less with short-term deficits and debt. Just under half of Democratic voters now view deficit reduction as a top priority, down 18 points from last January, according to Pew.

With no more "action-forcing moments" like the fiscal cliff, MacGuineas said, political leaders are happy to move on to other issues.

The latest of those moments came this month when the government again came close to running up against the debt ceiling. In the past, Republicans had demanded that a deal to raise the debt limit contain equal spending cuts, but this time the GOP allowed a clean increase without much of a fight.

"The policies solutions are still so unpleasant that everyone, politicians and voters, feels a bit of comfort if they think they can push it under the carpet," MacGuineas said.

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