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Debt clock serves as a memory test

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The Republican National Convention's schedule has been truncated a bit, moving from a four-day affair to a three-day gathering, but there was some action on the convention floor yesterday. As Rachel noted last night, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus officially banged the gavel, kicking off the show. The proceedings lasted seven minutes.

But note what else happened when the gavel came down.

As Republicans gather in Tampa, Fla., for their convention, party leaders want to drive home a message to voters: The federal debt is hurtling toward $16 trillion, and it is President Obama's fault.

That's the gist of what the party chairman, Reince Priebus, said as he banged a gavel to open the convention Monday afternoon. The banging activated a "debt clock" in the convention hall that tallies the amount the debt accumulating during the four-day event. A second ticker that started running earlier displays the total national debt.

Mr. Priebus said the clocks served to draw attention to the "unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration."

Reality is clearly fighting a losing battle, but when it comes to the debt clock, the political world should at least try to avoid collective amnesia.

Towards the end of President Clinton's second term, debt clocks that had been established in various U.S. locations had to be shut down -- the deficit had been eliminated and the clocks had never been set to run backwards.

They started back up again during the Bush/Cheney era. Republicans took a massive surplus and turned it into an even more massive deficit, adding the costs of two wars, two tax cuts, Medicare expansion, and a Wall Street bailout to the national charge card.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) later referred to the Bush/Cheney era as a time in which Republicans decided "it was standard practice not to pay for things." In just eight years, GOP policymakers not only eliminated the surplus -- the nation had been on track to eliminate the national debt altogether by 2010 -- but they'd also added $5 trillion to the debt in eight years.

The RNC wants to talk about the "unprecedented fiscal recklessness of the Obama administration"? Seriously?

But wait, Republicans argue, Obama has made things worse, so there's nothing wrong with pushing this message now.

That's not quite right, either. For one thing, tackling debt reduction in the wake of an economic crash is insane. For another, the deficit actually has gotten considerably smaller -- to the tune of about $200 billion -- since Obama took office.

While we're at it, let's also not forget that Obama offered Republicans a $4 trillion debt-reduction deal, but they turned it down.

But even putting all of that aside, the most important takeaway is that while the deficits have remained large under Obama, it's not Obama's policies that are responsible. Remember this chart?

There are plenty of other charts along these same lines.

When the Republican convention casts blame for the nation's fiscal challenges, they're generally condemning the wrong president.