Trump’s Doomed Budget Helps Democrats by Hurting Republicans

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Nearly every analyst in Washington agrees that President Trump’s new budget blueprint—a grab-bag of fantastical growth projections and policy demands Congress will never meet—is dead on arrival. Every White House budget is, to some extent, a wish list that serves chiefly as a messaging vehicle. But even Trump’s allies find little to love in the 2020 White House budget plan. “It’s made them irrelevant for the most important issues up on Capitol Hill,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, budget chief for President George W. Bush, told Bloomberg Television.

Trump’s budget may not resonate with Congress, but as a new memo from the Democratic Super-PAC Priorities USA points out, it’s bound to resonate with voters in a way that could backfire on Republicans. Here’s why: The budget’s hallmark huge growth forecast, billions in border-wall funding, and deep cuts to entitlement spending are meant to play as muscular displays of commitment to two issues—border security and deficit reduction—that he’s failed to deliver on, while masking the cost of one he has, his tax cut.

But the math required to balance Trump’s budget and offset the revenue-draining effects of his tax cut entails spending $845 billion less on Medicare and another $25 billion less on Social Security over the next decade, things he vowed never to do while he was running for president. “Save Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security without cuts,” Trump said in 2015. “Have to do it.” Trump’s promise to protect these programs was popular and set him apart from the other Republican contenders.

His reversal is unpopular.

“Our post-election polling in November 2018 found that a plan to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy” was the top concern among new Democratic voters—and also for voters who supported Trump in 2016 and then changed camps in the 2018 midterms, the Priorities USA memo notes. “Trump’s budget does exactly that.”

It’s always wise to take partisan polls with a grain of salt. But there’s a good reason to believe that the Priorities USA poll is accurate: an internal GOP poll last fall leaked to me and my colleague, Sahil Kapur, found exactly the same thing. That study, conducted in September for the Republican National Committee, found that Americans worried the tax law would prompt cuts in Social Security and Medicare, leading “most voters [to] believe that the GOP wants to cut back on these programs in order to provide tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.” 

So firmly had this fear taken root that the Republican pollsters who conducted the survey threw up their hands and concluded in a private memo to the RNC, “We’ve lost the messaging battle on the issue.” 

Two months later, congressional Republicans suffered an historic wipeout, losing 40 seats and handing control of the House of Representatives to Democrats.

Whatever its effect on maintaining the allegiance of his base, Trump’s budget sends a crystal-clear message to voters who worried his tax cut would prompt cuts to Medicare and Social Security—that their fears were well-founded. Those cuts may never pass into law. But the mere suspicion that Trump harbored these views was a political disaster for Republicans last fall. Having now committed them to print in his budget, the result isn’t likely to improve.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net

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