Congressional Democrats used President Donald Trump’s Tuesday address to legislators as another opportunity to signal that they’re unwilling to work with the White House in any way. But they ought to be delighted.
The political left just doesn’t get that widespread liberal opposition to President Trump isn’t based in anything resembling principled detest for his policy ideas. How could it be? If you listened to Trump’s speech, you could almost close your eyes envision a well-loved Democratic politician delivering some of his lines.
The president wants to spend big money on infrastructure and the military while leaving alone entitlement programs.
Big spending has long been a favorite priority of the political left. What’s more, Trump is poised to accomplish his big spending agenda with a rubber stamp from the Republicans who currently control Congress. In essence, he’s going to neuter the idea of fiscal responsibility by getting the GOP on board with the kind of spending many Republican voters love.
For a traditional fiscal conservative, bound to the idea that the federal government is already too far in the hole to justify any spending increases until the budget is completely balanced, Trump is a total nightmare. For the conservative economist, believing that tariffs and economic protectionism undermine free markets, Trump is a misguided mercantilist. And for the classical liberal, understanding that the only valuable government is one that puts the freedom of the individual above all else, Trump is a dangerous wildcard.
There is some hope for conservatives in the president’s lip service to cutting expenditures on foreign aid and bloated bureaucratic budgets. And the president’s promise to unravel Obamacare has many conservatives giddy with excitement.
But if you really listened to Trump’s speech Tuesday, you heard conflicting messages.
Big government has failed the American people… and it’ll take big government to fix the problem.
He praised Lincoln’s protectionism as he promised that trade tariffs will be key to rebuilding U.S. industry. And though Trump’s tariffs will certainly make big industry in the U.S. great again, at least in the short term, they aren’t such good news for most American consumers. The American Enterprise Institute recently pointed out that a short term increase in U.S. manufacturing jobs will eventually leave the economy as a whole worse off do to what economists call the “deadweight cost” of economic protectionism. Furthermore, the tariffs don’t do any favors for the U.S. small business startups that rely on materials sourced from outside the U.S. to provide affordable products to customers.
With regard to the military, Trump readily acknowledges that years of Pentagon mismanagement of funds and military adventurism have gotten us nowhere. But that isn’t stopping him from going ahead with the favorite big government fix for any problem: throwing money at it. Trump wants a $54 billion increase in the military budget, bringing the total spend to around $603 billion. His reasoning is that we can achieve peace through strength. But more conservative watchers would argue that the better option is to ensure we maintain strength through economic responsibility.
On Obamacare, Trump’s Tuesday speech left little doubt that the federal government’s exit from the healthcare business will be far less dramatic than advertised on the campaign trail.
From the speech: “First, we should ensure that Americans with preexisting conditions have access to coverage, and that we have a stable transition for Americans currently enrolled in the healthcare exchanges.
“Secondly, we should help Americans purchase their own coverage through the use of tax credits and expanded Health Savings Accounts — but it must be the plan they want, not the plan forced on them by our government.”
For Republican hardliners who’ve advocated for a total repeal of the previous president’s healthcare overhaul, this is a signal that Americans can look forward to Obamacare-lite.
And finally, Trump’s $1 trillion promise on American infrastructure sounds a lot like the kind of government spending we’ve seen promised by past Democrats. The big difference is that Trump says that his figure is made up of public and private investment.
“To launch our national rebuilding, I will be asking the Congress to approve legislation that produces a $1 trillion investment in the infrastructure of the United States — financed through both public and private capital –- creating millions of new jobs,” Trump said.
“This effort will be guided by two core principles: Buy American, and Hire American,” Trump added.
Trump contends that the increased revenues from American productivity spurred by his (big government) tariffs and infrastructure deals combined with (small government) slashing of business regulations will offset the costs of his massive military and infrastructure spending.
The problem is that his plan is still heavily reliant on the idea that government can fix problems without stepping outside the bounds of its constitutional authority. It simply can’t.
If his writers had left off the bits about immigration and added a few lines about why Americans should feel guilty about not doing enough globally, much of Trump’s speech might even have been at home in the previous administration’s rhetorical rolodex. With his immigration sentiments in-tact Trump’s speech was reminiscent of something Americans heard from a different past president— a fellow admirer of Lincoln’s ideas about the federal government’s outsized role in American life: Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And if the Democrats of today had any sense, they’d abandon their love of identity politics and rejoice. After all, Trump is convincing a generation of conservatives that big government can be just as liberating as reducing federal power and enabling individual liberty—it just has to be the right kind of big government.