TAMPA — After a late start to its national convention, the Republican Party is putting the national debt front and center this week as it tries to limit President Obama to one term.
A giant electronic display inside the Tampa Bay Times Forum tallies the national debt, now approaching $16 trillion. Nearby, another massive “debt clock” tracks the debt as it accumulates over the course of the four-day gathering.
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, says the imposing debt clocks speak to the central theme of the convention: government spending. “The first clock will bring home the full magnitude of the problem, while this second clock will impress upon the nation just how much our government overspends in the span of only four days,” Priebus said.
In July, the fact-checking site PolitiFact broke down that overall debt figure:
“There are two kinds of federal debt and interest — the debt held by the public and the total debt. About $11 trillion — yes, trillion — of that debt is held by the public, which includes individuals, companies and state, local and foreign governments, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The rest, about $4.8 trillion, is held by the Federal Financing Bank, government trust funds, and other funds and accounts.”
Republicans point out that the national debt has increased by about $5 trillion under President Obama. Indeed, the total debt when Obama was inaugurated in 2009 was roughly $10.6 trillion. In comparison, the debt went up $4.9 trillion during President George W. Bush’s 8 years in office, according to CBS. However, the two presidents took office during very different economic times.
When Bush took office, he inherited a budget surplus of hundreds of billions of dollars; while Obama took office amid two wars, the ongoing Bush-era tax cuts and a faltering economic situation reminiscent of the Great Depression.
“Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan understand that burdening our children with such massive debt is a loan on their future,” Priebus said in a statement released at the convention opening, setting a theme for the gathering. “We can do better than this, and on Day One of the Romney-Ryan administration, Mitt Romney will take immediate action to cut federal spending and bring the debt under control.”
Patchwork Nation spoke with some Republican delegates from around the country to gauge their views on budgetary issues and economic concerns this election season.
A.J. Matthews is a delegate from the convention’s host city, Tampa. The Hillsborough County Republican state committeeman is a retired police officer, U.S. Coast Guard reservist and a stay-at-home dad who is having trouble finding work after his most recent military deployment.
“The debt clock isn’t a gimmick,” he said. “It’s focused on the economy while Democrats try to deflect attention from that.”
Matthews said Paul Ryan was a “masterful” pick for Mitt Romney’s running mate, adding that Ryan has skill, courage and dedication.
Regarding his job hunt, “I’m increasingly overqualified. People praise my resume, but say ‘I’m probably wasting your time.’”
While his wife works, Matthews spends his time working on political campaigns and helping his three children get to school, but laments that none of that will help pay his kids’ college tuition.
“I’ve got a sharp mind and an able body. There’s a lot I could be doing,” he said.
Former Virginia Lt. Gov. John Hager said the federal budget is “just totally out of balance.”
“Looking at the debt clock,” he said from the floor of the convention hall, “I just think it’s appalling.”
“All this happened in just a few years,” he continued. “Even with Bill Clinton, we had a budget surplus.”
Entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, need to be brought under control, Hager said. Raising the eligibility age or contribution amounts for Social Security, he said, is just tinkering around the edges. He’d like to see a different system in place to ensure that younger contributors will see the benefit of their payments into the system, but he acknowledged that it’s a difficult situation facing many politicians.
As for Medicare, Hager said he is impressed with the Ryan plan.
In the end, though, many of these major budgetary decisions rest with Congress.
David Bittner, an alternate delegate from Denver who’s pledged to Ron Paul, said he would like to see voters have more direct say over budgetary issues.
“When you go in to vote, you’d have a list of things to approve of or disapprove of,” he said. “That’s something I’ve wanted to see for years.”
Massachusetts state Rep. Steven Howitt of Seekonk, Mass., said President Obama put the country in more debt with his economic stimulus efforts.
“Debt costs money,” he said. “The more debt we go into, the weaker we are. We’ve got to get the economy going to pay down the debt.”
Brock Cordeiro is a first-time delegate also from Massachusetts, where Romney served as governor.
“Public debt is a public disgrace,” said the Dartmouth, Mass., resident. “The best I can say is that Obama has been ineffectual.”
Cordeiro called Romney “the right man at the right time” for the country, saying he turned a several-billion-dollar budget gap as governor into a surplus just a few years later.
Carol Del Carlo is an alternate delegate for Mitt Romney from Incline Village, Nev.
“The whole country, I think, we’re ready to go over the edge,” she said.
“Americans are willing to sacrifice,” she added, but said that “raising taxes kills job growth, as far as I’m concerned.”
Del Carlo said she’s trying to be more conscious of buying products that are made in America, but “bless the Chinese for wanting a better life.”
This whole election is about the economy, she said. And President Obama has said that he expects to be held accountable for it. “Now we’re doing it,” she said.
G. William Thomas Jr., a four-time delegate from Richmond, Va., said that “getting the budget under control is perhaps the greatest issue we face today.”
He said he is excited to have Ryan on the ticket, adding, “He knows the budget perhaps better than anyone else.”
Thomas, who served in the Reagan administration as a senior legislative assistant for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that “boondoggle rip-offs and incredible bailouts” in the Obama administration have not led to the jobs that were promised.
On Tuesday, a few blocks away from the GOP convention, several high-profile Democrats took aim at Romney’s history as a businessman and his economic goals.
“Romney was a job destroyer. Not a job creator,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, according to the Tampa Bay Times. “Now Mitt Romney is proposing the same top-down approach. … It’s pretty clear Romney economics would be a disaster for the middle class.”
During last year’s contentious debate in Washington over raising the federal debt ceiling, the White House released an infographic placing the blame for much of the nation’s debt on President Bush’s policies during 8 years in office.
So what might the future hold for the federal debt clock in a Romney White House versus an Obama re-election? PolitiFact outlined the candidates’ proposals for spending and deficit reduction so far:
“Obama’s deficit reduction plan is much more specific than Romney’s, but for a sitting president, that’s expected.
“Still, independent analysts say that Romney’s plan is so vague that it’s difficult to know how his plan will impact the federal budget. What are missing are the politically sensitive details on which programs he would cut and which tax breaks he would reduce. What we do know indicates his plan will drive up deficits, potentially a great deal.”
It remains to be seen if Romney and Ryan will unveil any more specifics about their budget plans this week at the Tampa convention, but the debt clocks looming over the proceedings make it clear that the Republicans want to keep this gathering of the party faithful focused on federal spending — and any changes that would be ushered in by a Romney administration.
If you had the power to control the federal budget, what changes would you make? Budget Hero is a “serious” online game that lets you decide which government programs and taxes to keep and which to cut — and you get to see the long-term consequences of your choices on the national debt and size of government.