A GOP trapped between its past, future.
President Trump ran as a different kind of Republican, but his preliminary budget would be right at home where the rest of the party is: the 1980s.
The big picture: a $54 billion, or about 10 percent, increase in military spending and a cut to the rest of the discretionary budget by a near equal amount. That includes, among many, many other things, less money for before- and after-school programs, job training, affordable housing, public transit, scientific research, foreign aid and, yes, the Environmental Protection Agency.
The bigger picture, though, is that this would confine nonmilitary spending to an even historically smaller share of the economy than it’s already set to. Indeed, the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates that, as a result of the spending limits President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans agreed to in their debt-ceiling deal, nondefense discretionary spending will fall to a 56-year low of 3.09 percent of gross domestic product in 2018. Trump’s cuts would probably push that below 3 percent.
That joke that the government is just an insurance company with an army? This budget takes it almost literally. It’s squeezing all the non-Social Security, non-Medicare, non-Medicaid, nondefense parts of the budget about as far as they can go. Nondefense discretionary spending would be 25 percent lower in inflation-adjusted terms than it was in 2010 if Trump’s budget becomes a reality.
But you can’t go hunting for so many savings in such a small part of the budget without some collateral damage. Take the National Institutes of Health. Everyone — on the right, on the left and in the center — is in favor of scientific research. And yet, in the past six years, NIH’s inflation-adjusted budget has decreased about 6 percent. That almost seems quaint compared to the 25 percent cut — in absolute terms — Trump wants this year alone. It’s the same story with the State Department (together with the U.S. Agency for International Development) and the Environmental Protection Agency, whose funding would be slashed by 28 percent and 31 percent, respectively.
It’s repeal by another name. Which is to say that the “deconstruction of the administrative state” that White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon has talked about doesn’t actually require deconstructing anything. All it requires is an unrealistically small budget.
Not that this is entirely intentional. This is partly the result of politicians who want to cut spending but don’t want to cut the biggest spending programs: Social Security and Medicare. That forces deeper and deeper cuts onto smaller and smaller budgets, until the government is hard pressed to perform some of its most basic functions.
The question, then, is whether Trump will be willing to spread some of this fiscal pain onto entitlements. And the answer is: Who knows?
During the campaign, after all, he promised that “there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.” But during the past week, he has endorsed a healthcare plan that would cut $880 billion from Medicaid over the next decade.
That leaves three possibilities. Trump could either go full conservative, full populist or some mishmash of the two.
In the first case, he’d match his tea-partystyle cuts to nondefense discretionary spending with approved entitlement reform approved by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). The retirement age would be raised, benefits would grow at a slower rate and, when it comes to Medicare, the government’s guarantee of health care would be turned into a voucher for it.
In the second, Trump would embrace his inner Dick Cheney and decide that deficits don’t matter. He’d not only leave entitlements untouched, but he’d also undo all the cuts he made — or at least the ones that hurt his voters.
And in the last one, he’d keep trying to mix the big-government-for-me-but-notfor-thee conservatism that the party’s base loves with the small government conservatism that its activists do, no matter how incoherent that might be in practice.
The only problem is that these things don’t mix. You can’t be a herrenvolk party devoted to the idea that the welfare state must be protected for people born in the right place and of the right hue, and a Hayekian one whose animating principle is that the welfare state must be shrunk until it’s small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.
To be fair, these ideological fissures preceded Trump, and, if the first few months of his administration are any guide, they won’t end with him. Instead, he’ll try to appease one group after another, bouncing back and forth between the GOP’s past and its future.
For today, at least, that’s still something Ronald Reagan might recognize.