The 2019 budget that the White House released Monday is noteworthy not only because it has the hilariously clunky title "Efficient, Effective, Accountable: An American Budget." More so than anything President Trump has done or said in office so far, it shows us what a dead letter his administration is.
Trump distinguished himself from the other candidates in the 2016 Republican primary by his full-throated defense of the welfare state. Over and over again he heaped scorn on wonkish plans to privatize, "means-test," or otherwise phase out entitlement programs. "Medicare is a program that works," he said as millions of Americans cheered and a few lonely Heritage Foundation interns sobbed into their bow ties.
Trump's support for the safety net as presently constituted was not an isolated phenomenon. It was part of a broader emphasis on solidarity at the expense of "entrepreneurship" and other GOP talking points that had fallen on deaf ears in purple states election after election. Trump dismissed NAFTA as a failure and promised to pull America out of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. He argued that our recent adventures in the Middle East had cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars without making Americans safer. He even flirted with raising taxes on the wealthy and creating a single-payer health-care system. On social issues, he was a moderate. (His platform was remarkably similar to Barack Obama's when he campaigned for the Senate in 2004, as a glance at his collected speeches reveals.)
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It has since become clear that if Trump ever believed these things it was only at the level of fantasy.
The United States did withdraw from the TPP three days after the inauguration, but the president himself did not make much of a fuss about it. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a rally on Capitol Hill at which they seemed happy to give themselves and their party (erstwhile in Sanders' case) credit for something opposed by the presidential candidate they had both supported the previous year. Since then, however, Trump has shown us that he supports indiscriminate tax cuts, endless conflict in Afghanistan, and — what else? A booming stock market?
In case it were still an open question, we have the White House's own 2019 budget. In addition to childish suggestions, such as $18 billion for a border wall that will never exist and the elimination of all funding for NPR and PBS, the plan calls for some $3 trillion in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and various other social programs. It is important to emphasize that this document did not spring from the febrile imagination of Paul Ryan or the House Freedom Caucus. It was prepared by Trump's own staff. Apart from the proposed spending on infrastructure, much of which is expected to come from states and municipalities, it reads very much like phase one of what will turn out to be a medium-term plan to eliminate Medicaid as we know it.
Why is the White House proposing these reductions? It cannot be because they are worried about the deficit. Even $3 trillion in cuts to social services will hardly make a dent due to increased infrastructure and military spending and revenue lost after Trump's new tax rates take effect. It is difficult to see this budget as anything but a capricious, spiteful attack on the poor and the sick.
This is the point at which some columnists will feel compelled to make the usual allowances. Are we really sure that this represents Trump himself and his thinking, whatever that word might mean? Very likely he hasn't read the document. (Can he read at all, I increasingly wonder, not in the sense of being able to spell out the letters D-O-N-A-L-D, but sitting down with a two-page report and making sense of its contents?) This means that we cannot be sure, which is its own problem.
Or maybe it isn't. Was Trump the candidate a liar, or is Trump the president a hapless naïf forced against his will into serving as an errand boy for the nerds who run right-wing think tanks? This is a question for historians.
What matters now is that his presidency is looking like a risible failure. Not on my terms or Hillary Clinton's, but his own.
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