For much of the last two years, Republicans on Capitol Hill have been able to tune out Donald Trump. It was a luxury they couldn’t afford during his time in the White House, when they were beholden to his every whim—and, more often than not, his every tweet. Those 280-character dispatches quickly became dogma; anyone who dared ignore them was quickly excommunicated. But since January 6—and Trump’s related expulsion from Twitter—Republicans have been able to ignore him. Their current agenda—to the extent that one exists at all, beyond a relentless focus on inconsequential and exaggerated social issues, that is—still bears his influence, but it has begun to creep back toward its pre-Trump orthodoxies, particularly on economic issues. Without Trump driving the herd, Republicans were able to get back on their bullshit.
For a while, that meant big, sweeping entitlement cuts—vintage GOP. Republicans started to campaign on cuts to Social Security and Medicare during the midterms, but reversed course after these designs were quickly revealed to be political losers. Now, with the debt ceiling deadline fast approaching, Republican leaders want budget cuts to be on the table in exchange for a vote that will allow America to pay its bills. And while Republican leaders have been coyly suggesting that the big-ticket entitlement programs will escape the ax, Democrats are, justifiably, eyeing those pronouncements warily. But with threats to Social Security and Medicare back in the news, Trump, looking to get his mostly moribund campaign some juice, is seizing an opening to try to once again bend the GOP to his will. Republican leaders deserve what they’re getting.
On Wednesday, Politico reported that “Donald Trump is driving a wedge through the GOP over one of American politics’ thorniest issues: the future of Medicare and Social Security.” Per Politico:
While the GOP once more actively pushed for changing both programs’ benefits, Trump has separated the party into two distinct camps as he attacks Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy” for supporting a congressional budget that alters Medicare. Both Republican camps and even some Democrats agree that Trump’s moves are politically effective. But some GOP members are angry to see their party freshly divided over fiscal austerity.
Trump has been looking for a way to attack DeSantis—this very well might be it. (“Meatball Ron” is also not bad.) Republicans have largely tried to defang Trump by adopting most of his policy positions on the campaign trail, particularly when it comes to immigration and China. But on economic policy, there’s more divergence—Mike Pence, Trump’s former vice president, has openly campaigned on cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare. Republicans are simply too ideological to recognize that Trump’s pledge not to cut these programs—a pledge he later repeatedly broke, for what it’s worth—was arguably his biggest political stroke of genius in the 2016 election. Now they’re unlearning that lesson anew, and empowering him in the process.
This is ultimately just an aesthetic difference. Trump doesn’t actually care about following through with this pledge. The official GOP position is the same as it always has been: Cuts to social welfare programs are always the ultimate goal. Still, Trump’s decision to campaign in the opposite direction—and expose the extent to which the Republican base isn’t monomaniacally opposed to these programs—is a particularly humiliating serving of just deserts for the GOP after its near-century-long fight to undo the New Deal.
Donald Trump won the presidency by convincing voters that he wasn’t a normal Republican. Boorish and uncouth, Trump was in many ways more radical than other Republicans: Openly xenophobic, he dispensed with dog whistles on issues like crime and immigration and said his political opponents belonged in prison. For Republicans who felt the party’s recent nominees were too moderate—particularly on immigration—Trump was a strongman.
But part of Trump’s success also came from convincing voters that he was more liberal than recent Republicans, particularly on economic issues. Trump’s fondness for tariffs and hatred of trade deals helped convince Midwestern voters, in particular, to support him. But Trump’s pledge not to cut Medicare and Social Security was particularly effective. “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid,” Trump told the Daily Signal, a conservative publication, in 2015. This was a huge part of his campaign message. He was different: He was tougher than other Republicans, and he wouldn’t cut entitlements.
Trump ultimately didn’t follow through and broke that promise many times. Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, boasted to Politico that he tricked the then-president into accepting Social Security cuts. Every effort to repeal Obamacare involved cuts to Medicaid; Trump himself proposed $800 billion in cuts; he threw a party when House Republicans slashed the program in 2017. Trump’s signature—or, if you prefer, only—legislative accomplishment, a massive corporate tax cut, blew a hole in the federal deficit; Republicans who voted for that tax cut are now using the deficit as an excuse to cut Social Security and Medicare. His 2021 budget, meanwhile, involved cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
Trump was shrewd enough to realize that cuts to social welfare programs were exploitable in 2016. In office, he didn’t care about his prior commitments at all and just let Republicans do whatever they wanted. But Campaign Trail Trump is back, and Republicans now find themselves in a bind between Trump’s stated position (no cuts) and their position (cut everything).
They’re wise enough to understand that openly advocating for cuts is a political loser. “I distinctly remember somebody basically ran a presidential campaign on this in 2012: the Paul Ryan budget, the austerity budget,” Josh Hawley told Politico. “I don’t recall that ticket performing very well. I personally don’t care to go back to that.” He’s right! But Republicans are stuck in a mess of their own making because the only candidate in the race that’s enunciating, however insincerely, a commitment to save these programs is Trump. And to get back to the White House, he’ll happily paint his primary foes as dyed-in-the-wool enemies of entitlements. Which, of course, they are.