The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an organization that is virtually unknown outside of Washington, was nonetheless cited in four different questions during this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates.

Moderators Elaine Quijano and Chris Wallace, seemingly unable to string together an intelligent thought about domestic policy on their own, outsourced their questions to a cabal of self-styled serious grown-ups who believe that advocating for cutting Social Security and Medicare makes them look like paragons of virtue.

But members of Washington’s media elite are virtually the only people left in America still buying the well-funded nonsense CRFB and its Wall Street backers have been selling for decades. Every time their ideas get exposed to the public, they are rejected wholesale. While the D.C. cocktail-party circuit sees deficit scare tactics as steely-eyed wisdom, the national constituency for such monomania could fit in a mid-sized sedan.

The CRFB is part of a circus of vanity projects run by former Nixon cabinet official and private equity billionaire Pete Peterson, who has been demanding cuts to programs he’s too rich to rely upon since the early 1980s.

The scaremongering about the debt masks an ideological agenda to stop any federal programs that commit the mortal sin of helping people, because the country sits on the precipice of becoming a Weimar Germany hyperinflation failed state. If rolling back those programs means preventing tax increases on rich people like Pete Peterson and his progeny, all the better.

Back on planet Earth, inflation hasn’t hit the Federal Reserve’s skinny 2 percent target in four years, and the real scandal is that America is blowing a huge opportunity to borrow at historically low interest rates and fulfill public needs. Experts across the political spectrum agree that the deficit is not a problem right now.

But, like a Halloween shop trying to come up with variations on the “sexy cat” costume, Peterson continues to dress up his efforts with different names and formats, seeking to energize a massive grassroots push for impoverishing the elderly.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: Pete Peterson, chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, speaks at the 2012 Fiscal Summit on May 15, 2012 in Washington, DC. The third annual summit, held by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, explored the theme "America's Case for Action." (Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Pete Peterson, chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, speaks at the 2012 Fiscal Summit on May 15, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images


For example, there was America Speaks, a kind of open-mic night for budgetary cruelty that held town hall meetings across the country in 2010. This $1 billion exercise in inducing panic presented scare videos about the debt looming like a colossus, and asked participants to devise blueprints for the future that were heavily tilted toward cutting Social Security and Medicare.

The joke was on America Speaks, however; at some point they had to let Americans speak — and they preferred taxes on millionaires and Wall Street over austerity.

Peterson shifted to the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a 2012 front group for Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to salvage the wreckage of their failed budget-cutting commission. In true grassroots fashion, Fix the Debt assembled a “CEO Council” of 150 corporate titans, from Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Citigroup and the like. But somehow, allying themselves with Wall Street didn’t inspire credibility.

To “get down” with the kids and their Friendsters and MySpaces, Fix the Debt created a student affiliate group called The Can Kicks Back. Its most memorable moment was when an activist in a pirate suit crashed their campus tour and fought it out with someone dressed as a can.

Peterson’s biggest problem is that the darned public seemed to keep getting in the way of his dream of gutting social spending. When Fix the Debt held a video contest, first prize went to a short opposing Social Security cuts.

When Fix the Debt tried to set up a flash mob, the dancers it hired ended up telling reporters they were against Social Security cuts. The group tried a live chat on Twitter; virtually every response mocked them. (Sample: “Can’t we just solve all these problems by eating Irish children?” full disclosure: that was from me.)

Op-eds from The Can Kicks Back college students started appearing across the country; it turned out that Peterson PR flaks ghost-wrote them. The Can Kicks Back then announced a tin can drive — just the thing to attract millennials. They amassed 800 cans in an effort that cost $2.4 million. Maybe fiscal responsibility wasn’t their strong suit.

Perhaps the biggest fail from the deficit scolds came when an unassuming man named David Walker, former comptroller general of the United States (I don’t really know what that means either) who sits on the CRFB board and once ran the Peterson Foundation, started making loud hints that he would run for president in 2012.

Walker, a fan of debtor’s prisons, touted a “draft movement” urging him to run on the ticket of Americans Elect, a third-party group that vowed to support a presidential hopeful if they received 10,000 “clicks” at their online convention.

Americans Elect enjoyed massive publicity from Beltway pundits (“A wild card for the internet age”!) and also Beltway pundits (“Make way for the radical center”!), and was awash with millions of dollars in undisclosed money (“serious hedge fund money,” to be precise). The group got ballot access in 29 states. But when it came time for human beings to get involved, nobody, including Walker, could even manage to acquire anything close to the 10,000 clicks, something a blog about lint can probably manage in a week. Americans Elect folded up.

Every time Peterson’s coterie of deficit-mongers tries to inspire a national movement, they find out there’s no interest in their ideas. But debate moderators lap up their simplistic rendering of the economy. The only difference between planting a debate question about the looming national debt and one about an imminent alien invasion is that at least some people believe in aliens.

Top photo: Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence speaks as debate moderator Elaine Quijano listens during the Vice Presidential Debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine at Longwood University on Oct. 4, 2016, in Farmville, Virginia.