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The national debt re-entered the political discourse last week as the nation narrowly averted a government shutdown. How big of an issue is the national debt, and why do Democrats and Republicans disagree on it?

The National Debt In Context

The national debt has remained at record levels since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it hit an all-time high of 135% of U.S. GDP. 

The last time that the national debt reached a similar percent of GDP was in 1946 during WWII when the debt reached 121% of GDP.

What the Left is Saying

Media outlets on the left emphasized that we got close to a shutdown because of Republicans in the House. Some, like NBC News (Lean Left bias), cited White House officials who reportedly said Biden’s hands-off approach to the shutdown talks was “intended to project an image of him out in the country executing on what he considers key accomplishments as House Republicans fight over how to fund the government.” Time (Lean Left) quoted Biden near the top of its article criticizing McCarthy for the “manufactured [debt] crisis.” NBC emphasized that former President Donald Trump encouraged a government shutdown. He said “The Republicans lost big on Debt Ceiling, got NOTHING, and now are worried that they will be BLAMED for the Budget Shutdown. Wrong!!! Whoever is President will be blamed UNLESS YOU GET EVERYTHING, SHUT IT DOWN! Close the Border, stop the Weaponization of ‘Justice,’ and End Election Interference.”

Axois (Lean Left) implied that both sides were concerned by the prospect of a potential government shutdown that could seriously hurt the economy. Axois quoted Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) and Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) as two Democrats concerned about the economic and reputational consequences of a shutdown and Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), as Republicans who said they were concerned about the implications of a shutdown. 

Some outlets on the left raised concerns about Medicare and Medicaid benefits in the event of a government shutdown. 

What the Right is Saying

Media voices on the right are more likely to say conservatives need to be the ones to thwart government spending driven by Democrats. Outlets invoked “Bidenomics” as the root of the debt problem, saying, “absent significant spending cuts, ‘Bidenomics’ will send America over a fiscal cliff while institutionalizing 1970s-style stagflation on steroids.” Specifically, a Washington Times (Lean Right) piece calls out the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act as adding trillions of dollars to the national debt.  

There was more focus on Matt Gaetz on the right. He was one of the Republicans to vote against any stopgap bills that McCarthy proposed. He criticsized McCarthy for working with Democrats to prevent the shutdown, which required the Republicans to sacrifice some of the spending cuts they wanted in the negotiations, such as cutting funding to Ukraine. Gaetz accused McCarthy of capitulating to the Democrats, saying, “And the one thing I agree with my Democrat colleagues on is that for the last eight months, this House has been poorly led.”

Bottom Line

The left is saying that the debt is a problem and we should avoid a government shutdown. They have been historically anti-government shutdown and more comfortable with spending. They broadly blame the House Republicans for bringing the government to the brink of the shutdown, including the leadership of McCarthy and the influence of Trump. The left focuses less on how to reduce the national debt in the long term.

The right is torn between those who side with Gaetz and believe threatening a shutdown is an effective negotiating tool for reducing spending. Others, such as McConnell, do not think it’s an effective tool. The right places some of the blame on Biden for adding to the debt under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both sides’ biases are reflected in the media coverage of the national debt.

Clare Ashcraft (Center bias) is the Bridging and Bias Specialist at AllSides. 

Reviewed by Ethan Horowitz (Lean Right bias) and AllSides Content Designer Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias).