What is a deficit hawk…or panda…or peacock?

Anyone who offers a serious plan to reduce the deficit, no matter what the plan may be, deserves the moniker

Matt Rourke / AP
A pair of red-tailed hawks are seen on their nest with a rabbit and their newly hatch young Tuesday, April 26, 2011, at the The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Who deserves the "deficit hawk" label?

The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent questions the true “hawkishness” of some who label themselves “deficit hawks”:

As I noted some time ago, the term “deficit hawk,” as it’s commonly used in Beltway discourse, simply doesn’t mean “someone who fully committed to reducing the deficit by any means necessary, even if it means tax hikes and — paradoxically enough — new government programs.” Rather, it means “someone who is fully committed to reducing the deficit through tax cuts, entitlement reform and an unswerving adherence to general hostility towards expansive government.”…

[I]magine if everyone who used the term “deficit hawk” agreed that it should refer only to those want to reduce the deficit by any means necessary, with nothing at all taken off the table. The conversation would start to sound very different, wouldn’t it?

It sounds to me like Greg’s saying a lot of Tea Party types label themselves “deficit hawks”–and that’s probably true. But I cringe when I hear that, because to be opposed to deficits does not mean one is opposed to big government. It just means that if I am for big government but against deficits, I have to be for higher taxes. And if I am for smaller government and lower taxes, but against deficits, I have to be for the tough benefit cuts that make that math work out. I think Paul Ryan has pretty clearly spelled out that he is a deficit hawk of the latter type (even if the details of the proposed benefit cuts are not yet spelled out), that the Progressive Caucus in Congress has spelled out that they’re deficit hawks of the former type (closing the deficit with mostly tax increases–but also defense cuts), and that President Obama is trying to forge a deficit-hawkish path somewhere in the middle.

In my opinion, anyone who sincerely offers a plan to reduce the deficit can deserve the label “deficit hawk”–no matter how different their preferred approach may be from my own or even society’s consensus view. Ruth Marcus suggested that deficit hawks who still value a strong role of government might be more appropriately labeled “deficit pandas”–but that’s probably a little too wimpy sounding for most people’s tastes. (Pandas are cute and cuddly, yes, but they also seem pretty fat and lazy.) A year ago Michael Linden of the Center for American Progress explained that those who are insincere in their commitment to deficit reduction–but use their claimed commitment to fiscal responsibility to get what they really want, which is a small government still larger than the much lower taxes they’re willing to pay–are more properly considered “deficit peacocks.” (Paul Krugman liked this CAP guide on “how to spot a deficit peacock” a lot, and he even called the President one at the time.)

So whether any of us perceive someone as deserving of the “deficit hawk” label depends on our own individual interpretations of the sincerity and seriousness of the deficit-reduction strategies offered. There’s so much distrust in this town though, so those deficit-reduction approaches polar opposite to our own (that we just fundamentally dislike) are automatically dismissed as insincere and not serious. And then we say we won’t even honor the other side with any conversation about their “crazy” plan versus our serious plan. We label them (cocky) “peacocks” or “pandas” (of the fat and lazy variety) and claim that we, as true “hawks,” don’t need to work things out with them.

I don’t know what the political solution is (nor what some other fitting animal descriptions might be for the various factions in this deficit-reduction debate), but so far this common-good, shared-sacrifice, fiscal responsibility effort that the President says we need to make, is not working out so well–even with the mix of true deficit hawks already involved.

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