Updated on July 23 at 8:35 a.m. ET
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.
Besides, Trump is not ideologically committed to entitlement reform in the manner of many of the movement conservatives, such as former Speaker Paul Ryan, whom he has either driven from politics or relegated to the sidelines of the GOP. Trump’s most recent budget proposal called for cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, but all parties understood that budget would never be enacted. Actually making such cuts would be another matter. The biggest remaining pot of money in the federal budget is defense, and Trump has sought to increase military spending, not trim it back. From there, things get harder. The president could try cutting many small programs, but the problem is that every line in the federal budget has a constituency—and even if you’re willing to exert political muscle rolling them, you end up with relatively small savings.
But if the president isn’t running for reelection to impose fiscal discipline on the nation, just what would be the point of another term in office?
The president has not so far laid out a real platform for a second four years, although he has signaled over the past 10 days or so that he intends to focus his campaign on racist remarks and sowing division among Americans. One reason might be that so much of Trump’s first-term agenda remains incomplete. When he was running for office, Trump promised to drain the swamp, build the wall, win the trade war, repeal and replace Obamacare, appoint conservative judges, replace NAFTA, stop free-riding allies, and stand up to America’s enemies.
For the first year and a half of Trump’s presidency, I periodically cataloged the president’s accomplishments, lest they be overlooked in the chaos. I haven’t done one of those for a while, because although the chaos has subsided (somewhat), so have the accomplishments.
Trump has had enormous success remaking the judiciary. But the rest of his agenda has largely stalled. His Cabinet acclimated to the swampiness of Washington, D.C., and then surpassed it. The wall is unbuilt. The trade war is still being fought. Obamacare repeal is all but dead, barring a revival by the courts. Trump’s NAFTA replacement, which is largely just NAFTA by a new name, is stuck in limbo. Most NATO allies still aren’t reaching defense-spending targets. Trump is conciliatory toward North Korea and seems ready to accept nuclearization, and has been measured toward Iran.
That means the best justification for a second Trump term is that it would give him the chance to complete all the things he didn’t manage to get done in the first term. That’s not the most compelling sales pitch for reelecting a candidate, even with a strong economy, which might be one reason Trump is spending his energy on stirring up racial animus.
For his reelection campaign, Trump has chosen the slogan “Keep America Great,” explaining, “We’re doing so well that in another two years when we start to heavy campaign, ‘Make America Great Again’ wouldn’t work out too well, right? It’s going to be ‘Keep America Great’ because that’s exactly where we’re headed.” But it’s clear from his rhetoric that he doesn’t think that America has returned to greatness yet. As I wrote on Friday, Trump has largely dropped that slogan from his speeches, while MAGA remains a staple.
The real reason Trump is running again, one suspects, is that he wants the prestige of winning a second term, just as he wanted the prestige of winning the first, and that he harbors a near-mortal fear of being branded a loser. During his first race, he had some strongly held (if only vaguely fleshed out) policy ideas, but since taking office he’s barely taken the time away from campaigning to govern. As Jason Zengerle showed in The New York Times Magazine over the weekend, Trump hasn’t even bothered to learn the basics of the law on immigration, his main focus.
In a second term, without reelection hanging over him, Trump would likely be even more disengaged from the work of governance. If he shows little inclination to learn the basic details now, he might withdraw entirely from most issues, remaining committed only to the very few that most hold his attention. One side effect of such a withdrawal? It would empower Trump’s aides to handle executive tasks much more as they see fit—perhaps including a push for large cuts to the federal budget.