Ah, memories. Remember how presidential candidate Donald Trump grandly promised to eliminate the federal debt in eight years? That’s a memory he apparently hopes we forget.
You could hear that in the absence of “debt” or “deficit” in the high praise he enthusiastically tweeted (“I am totally with you!”) for the two-year budget deal that White House and congressional budget negotiators reached last week.
Unmentioned in the president’s tweet is how much the national debt has grown on Trump’s watch to a new record, more than $22 trillion in February for the first time.
The deal worked out by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will raise spending by $320 billion, if it passes both chambers and the president signs it.
That signing appears certain, even though the deal blows right through the spending caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act. That law, once seen as the crowning Republican achievement of Democratic President Barack Obama’s years, set strict caps and enforced them with automatic spending cuts.
This major push for fiscal prudence was imposed on the Obama administration by the rise of the tax-fighting tea party movement, which popped up early in Obama’s first term and helped Republicans win back the House in 2010.
Where are they now? The grassroots movement that was united more by social media networks than formal organizational structure seems hard to find these days, except in fundraising emails and the resumes of conservative House Freedom Caucus members.
Just as the late Ross Perot’s 1992 independent run for president can be heard echoing in tea party rhetoric, the movement’s spirit and supporters appear to have been absorbed into Trump’s MAGA movement.
But not entirely. Trump, as he has shown us before, isn’t much of a deficit hawk. Quite the contrary, his promises cover all that he figures his base is looking for — a Mexican wall, a “better and cheaper” replacement for Obamacare, etc. — and virtually no details about how to pay for it all.
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Of course, somewhere along the line, the debt must be paid, or at least that’s what the conventional Washington wisdom has told us. But Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged a new reality, according to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s memoir, by declaring, “You know, Paul, (President Ronald) Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Reagan had won reelection despite a rising deficit on his watch.
Fast-forward to this past February, when Cheney’s observation seemed to become an operating motto for Trump’s team. With the launch of his reelection campaign, Trump is nudging aside the deficit hawks. His own chief of staff and budget chief Mick Mulvaney said “nobody cares” about the deficit anymore.
Well, not quite nobody. Americans still care a lot about Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense, among other government programs that are called “third rail” — touch them and you die.
Yet, if there is any consistency we see in the long-running debt and deficit debate, it has been how much more important it has been to Republicans than to Democrats, especially when Democrats are running the White House.
Look how much less heat Trump has received from his base for running up the red ink — or, for that matter, for anything else — especially in comparison to the heat that deficit hawks put on his predecessor Obama.
Bottom line: As a political matter, the national debt means less as an actual hazard than as a symbol for what it represents to our evaluation of political candidates: How much do we trust this person to have our interests in mind when they govern?
It is not unfair to say that tea party folks I interviewed in their movement’s heyday sounded more motivated by social and cultural values than by numbers.
Whether by accident or design, Trump picked up on that discontent and successfully rallied the discontented to build a base and take on all opponents. That’s a big reason why today’s progressive-wing Democrats talk about the national debt less than the more pragmatic Obama did. They understand that how much you spend in the political world can be less important than what you spend it on.
And they learned a lot of that from Republicans.