Will entitlement reform split the GOP’s conservo-populist coalition?

posted at 2:01 pm on March 2, 2017 by Ed Morrissey

Donald Trump’s successful and well-received presidential address to the joint session of Congress had a notable omission from a mostly traditional-Republican laundry list of White House legislative priorities. Roll Call’s David Hawkings noticed that entitlement reform got no mention at all, despite concern expressed by Trump during the speech about national debt. Have Republicans dispensed with a part of the “GOP orthodoxy,” Hawkings wonders?

By remaining silent on that score, Trump is absolutely staying true to his campaign promise to keep Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid just as they are.

The much more newsworthy silence comes from Speaker Paul D. Ryan, whose rapid rise from young Wisconsin backbencher to the principal policy playmaker in the House was fueled by a passionate advocacy for entitlement curbs, which he views as the central ingredient for balancing the budget, and creating a new era of national fiscal health. …

Many Republicans on the Hill had been counting on two of their own now in the Cabinet — White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, previously a House Freedom Caucus stalwart from South Carolina, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a Georgian who was previously the House Budget Committee chairman — to successfully sell Trump on the notion that pushing entitlement restraint in the name of long-term government solvency would be an important way to cement an economic legacy.

Although the first written outline of Trump’s initial budget won’t be delivered to the Capitol for two weeks, his opening preview and his first congressional address have made clear that argument did not get very far.

McKay Coppins wonders whether the argument is actually over. Ryan certainly doesn’t think it is, and his comments suggest that he and other conservatives on Capitol Hill are playing a longer game. That, however, could lead to a fracture in a still somewhat tentative alliance between conservatives and populists within the GOP coalition:

When a reporter asked Ryan if he was “giving up the dream” of so-called entitlement reform, he responded, “I never give up a dream. I’m a Green Bay Packer fan!” Pressed for a non-joke answer, he said simply that repealing Obamacare would be a kind of entitlement reform, and then promptly ended the press conference.

Why are budget hawks so willing to give the president a pass? One reason is standard-issue partisan pragmatism.

“Trump has zero interest in entitlement reform and he never will,” a senior Congressional Republican aide told me. And while some conservatives may gripe that Trump hasn’t clearly shown how he plans to pay for his proposed $54 billion increase to the defense budget, the aide said, “Borrowed defense spending is straight out of the Reagan playbook. It’s the 1980s all over again. Republicans will love it.”

What’s more, most GOP lawmakers are unwilling to take the political risk of proactively championing changes to major entitlement programs if they think their ever-tweeting president could turn on them.

There’s a sense in both analyses that this debate has concluded. It may have only been tabled for a while in order to focus on common interests, and Trump’s speech gives at least a little hint of that. “In the last eight years,” Trump told Congress, “the past administration has put on more debt than nearly all other presidents combined.” That’s certainly true, in part because Obama was unwilling to depart from the emergency-level of spending in 2008 and 2009, and also because taxes couldn’t keep up with it — and wouldn’t even if rates went up. The lack of expected growth played a part in that, a result of the weakest economic recovery in the post-World War II era, which Trump seizes as the path back to solvency.

Economic growth will solve a little of that on the margins, as well some cuts on the discretionary side of the ledger. In a couple of budget cycles, however, it will become clear to Trump that this path will be big-league insufficient to resolve the growth in national debt, and that entitlement programs will have to get reformed to make real headway. Until then, as I argue in my column for The Fiscal Times, conservatives will have to bide their time:

Even if Trump agrees with Ryan, as the Speaker claimed in his interview with Lauer, that doesn’t put entitlement reform on the table in this session. Mulvaney hinted, and Spicer made explicitly clear, that the Trump administration wants to focus on discretionary spending in its first budget plan. That part of the budget gives Trump wide latitude for cutting government; even if Congress appropriates funds, the White House does not have to spend all of it in each policy area. Fights over legislative turf have already begun to crop up, which should keep both sides of Capitol Hill busy for the next several months on more routine fiscal matters.

A focus on keeping campaign promises could boost entitlement reform in the longer run, though. Trump will get his first test with the electorate in the 2018 midterms. Traditionally, first-term presidents do poorly, but Republicans have a huge structural advantage in the Senate races, defending only eight of the 33 seats up for election.

Democrats have to defend ten seats in states Trump won in November, and Republicans could end up with a filibuster-proof majority in the next session of Congress. Success depends on Trump keeping that political capital in play by delivering on his 2016 campaign pledges.

After that, combined with two years of efforts to reduce spending and debt through the discretionary process, may give Trump and Republicans an opportunity to pull everyone together for a serious effort and success at entitlement reform. Until then, the opening won’t exist. Republicans might want to swallow hard and stop talking about it rather than miss the chance to get a lot more accomplished.

A focus on keeping campaign promises in the short run, and on economic growth as well, will give Republicans a lot more political capital with which to operate after 2018. That won’t be enough to jam entitlement reform through Congress, and as ObamaCare demonstrated, that’s a bad strategy for big projects anyway. However, it will offer Republicans more opportunities to convince Democrats to work on effective, bipartisan entitlement reform, plus that strategic patience will give Ryan and Trump time to bind the Republican coalition in the electorate more tightly to each other.

For now, this looks less like surrender or even retreat than it resembles a strategic pause. Ryan knows full well that entitlement reform is inevitable, but that it might take a while before Trump acknowledges that. For now, Republicans can focus on demonstrating that by implementing the competing visions first, and letting Trump draw the obvious conclusions in a year or two.


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