Easy to miss amidst the continuing fusillade of racist remarks from the White House was a remarkable Washington Post story this weekend:
President Trump has instructed aides to prepare for sweeping budget cuts if he wins a second term in the White House, five people briefed on the discussions said, a move that would dramatically reverse the big-spending approach he adopted during his first 30 months in office. Trump’s advisers say he will be better positioned to crack down on spending and shrink or eliminate certain agencies after next year, particularly if Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives.
If Trump is really contemplating large cuts in a second term, it’d be very strange. But the idea of a serious fiscal-conservative turn after 2020, no matter how unlikely, does raise a larger question: What exactly would be the point of a second Trump term?
Fiscal conservatism seems a stretch. Tuesday night, Trump announced a deal to raise the debt ceiling and increase federal spending by $320 billion. But there are some part-time fiscal hawks in the administration, including acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and this story seems like either Trump trying to appease them or else their attempt to seed the idea of cuts in the public consciousness.
The problem is that none of Trump’s stated priorities really align with budget cuts. He wants a big, beautiful wall and a big, beautiful military, and those both require more, rather than less, spending. Trump may not be a Roosevelt Democrat, exactly, but he also seems to have no particular ideological fixation on shrinking government or the importance of deficits. He was more than happy to expand the deficit with tax cuts in late 2017.
It’s hard to imagine what Trump would want to cut steeply, either. Entitlements, which make up roughly half of the federal budget, are extremely popular, as every president who has attempted to cut them has discovered. More importantly, Trump promised during the 2016 campaign not to cut entitlements, and while he could change his mind on that, it would probably be politically unwise, since his voters may be even more pro-entitlement than the average Republican president’s.