President Donald Trump’s main achievement in his first address to Congress was to make the phrase “President Trump” seem more plausible to more Americans.
The event had all the reassuring signs of normalcy – the familiar ovations, the teleprompter (actually being used), the policy proposals, the attempts at inspiration. International alliances were reaffirmed rather than questioned. A Gold Star family was honored instead of criticized. Trump made at least the attempt to present his nationalist, law-and-order views in the best light rather than the starkest contrast. His convictions, while still vivid, were not painted in his typical, jarring neon.
In all this, Trump made use of conventions rather than smashing them. And that provided some assurance that conventions could matter to the president and his team, at least for one winter’s evening. None of this represented a substantive change; it was a triumph of the speechwriting department, not the policy shop. But even some of Trump’s toughest critics found encouragement in his attempt to be encouraging. What you are reading is proof. Call it the soft bigotry of … something or other.
And still. The actual purpose of a president’s first speech to Congress is not to burnish his image; it is to clarify his budget priorities. And here, Trump is on more familiar, less coherent, ground.
The Trump budget – which still only exists in its barest outlines – would increase defense spending by more than $50 billion, cut discretionary spending by a similar amount, and leave entitlement programs alone. All of these elements represent the fulfillment of campaign pledges. But, taken together, they seem like the liberal caricature of a Republican budget: Cut poverty-fighting programs and international aid in order to fund more ships and tanks, but leave programs for the elderly (who disproportionately vote Republican) untouched.
Republicans clearly foresee a division of labor in the budget process. Trump will do the big-picture persuasion while House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell take care of the details. But the problem here is the big picture. Even in outline, the Trump budget is impractical, cold-hearted and unsalable.
It offers little by way of outreach to Democrats, some of whom will be needed to pass appropriations bills requiring 60 votes in the Senate. The proposal to slash discretionary spending – which means cuts in things like education, environmental protection, AIDS drugs and medical research – is enough to embitter any liberal heart. Discretionary spending has been steadily shrinking as a portion of the budget and has already taken considerable hits over the years. Trump is asking for gallons of blood from a pale and anemic patient.
Trump’s budget does little to please Republican budget hawks. They have also proposed similar levels of cuts in the past. But they always planned on using the saved money for deficit reduction. Trump is proposing to shift spending into defense and law enforcement, with no net cut in spending. “He seems to be arguing,” says Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, “for keeping the same budget trajectory we are on now, but still taking the political pain and human cost of big discretionary cuts.” That is not an easy sell to Republicans.
Trump’s budget does little to please entitlement hawks. Under Ryan’s leadership, congressional Republicans staked out the position that it is irresponsible to leave Social Security and Medicare on the path to insolvency and crisis. Ryan and company have now been undermined by another president who refuses to confront the mathematics of entitlement instability.
The president is likely to find resistance to elements of his budget in unlikely places. Some of the strongest opponents of cuts in foreign aid have backgrounds in the military. They understand that health and development spending can be a strategic tool, encouraging stability and decreasing the need for future interventions. Perhaps Trump should pause a moment in his praise of military leaders and actually listen to them.
The Trump budget outline is underdeveloped, compared with those of other presidencies; it leaves the trajectory of deficits unchanged; it imposes cruel and indiscriminate cuts in discretionary spending; it is cowardly, especially on the main drivers of future debt; it is injurious to elected Republicans who will risk the wrath of the Trump base in order to make rational budget choices; it is an indication of governing unseriousness and a preference for positioning over leadership.
But the speech was nice.
Michael Gerson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.