Will Conservative Budget Hawks Cave to Trump?

The president’s budget leaves Social Security and Medicare untouched, much to the frustration of small-government conservatives.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

When President Trump stands to deliver his first address to Congress Tuesday night, he will lay out a fiscal agenda that upends key planks of conservative orthodoxy and openly defies the die-hard budget hawks in his own party.

But don’t expect to hear a peep of opposition from Republicans.

The proposed budget Trump is expected to outline in his speech would considerably increase defense spending, slash funding for other domestic programs, and—most significantly—leave entitlement programs entirely untouched. The president’s aversion to cutting Social Security and Medicare is nothing new, of  course—he was campaigning against the idea long before he ever formally launched a campaign—but it does represent one of the most yawning ideological divides within the Republican Party today.

For years, conservative budget hawks, led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, have argued fiercely that reducing the federal budget deficit without raising taxes would require a substantial restructuring of the government’s two most costly entitlement programs. Refusing to address the problem head on, they have often said, represented a reckless abdication of responsibility on the part of elected officials.

Given the clear battle lines and high stakes, Trump’s speech tonight has all the makings of a potential flashpoint in the GOP civil war—but so far, at least, there are few signs of conservative resistance.

Instead, party leaders on Capitol Hill gathered Tuesday morning for a rah-rah press conference, where they signaled nothing but unabashed support for Trump’s agenda. Ryan kicked things off with some brief, upbeat remarks celebrating this “once-in-a-generation moment” in which Republicans were finally positioned to “tackle big problems” head on—ticking off several targets, including taxes, border security, federal regulations, and health care.

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.

“These efforts are going to require a partnership from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Doug Heye, a Republicans strategist who served as deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Members certainly don’t want to get too far out there if the administration is going to come back and say, ‘We’re not gonna do that,’ or, ‘We’re not interested in that issue at all’...They run the risk of a rebuke or a walkaway from the president.”

Some conservatives are holding out hope that the Ryan wing of the GOP can eventually bring Trump around if they continue to play nice for now. But Douglas Elmendorf, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office and current dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was bearish on any prospect of turning Trump into a serious budget hawk.

“People object to government spending in the abstract, but they like a lot of aspects of that spending—especially Social Security and Medicare, the programs that are growing most rapidly,” said Elmendorf. “And Donald Trump was elected in part because he promised not to cut those popular programs.”

In this sense, he said, fiscal conservatives’ biggest challenge isn’t the president, but the general unpopularity of their proposals. “Trump may look like the obstacle, but it’s just because he’s brought to the fore the underlying political challenge.”

Elmendorf said the generation of self-styled budget hawks that emerged in Congress during the Obama presidency can be separated into two categories: opportunistic partisans and true believers. That reality could be highlighted in the way conservatives respond to the agenda Trump lays out tonight.

“Many Republicans who describe themselves as deficit hawks weren’t really that worried about budget deficits,” Elmendorf said. “Because now that they’re able to do something about it, they’re not.”