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Look at What They Do, Not What They Say

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I don’t even think that Republicans are good con artists; the political media are just incredibly easy marks:

Uh, “Republicans” haven’t forgotten anything. Reporters have certainly “forgotten” that debt-funded upper-class tax cuts and defense spending increases have been the lodestar of Republican policy since Reagan was inaugurated. In the least surprising development ever, surprising as it seems to be to mainstream political reporters and the “the election of Trump was a blow to the neoliberal order” faction of the “left,” the Trump administration is the third term of the second Bush administration.

But wait — congressional Republicans have a new scam: blame what they’ve been for decades on a president with zero interest in public policy who would sign anything a Republican Congress puts on his desk:

“President Trump is remaking the Republican economic playbook in his own image,” reports the Washington Post, “abandoning ideological consistency in favor of a debt-busting strategy that will upend how Washington taxes and spends trillions of dollars each year.” The story is an echo of the Republican Party’s own response to the evident failure of its fiscal program, which is doubling the budget deficit during peace and prosperity. The attempts to suggest Trump betrayed some previously healthy ideal of budgetary rectitude — remaking, abandoning — combined with the implication that it somehow grows out of his personality — his own image — represent the party’s utterly predictable efforts to explain away its already-collapsing promises.

Trump has not abandoned Republican economic policy. He has carried it out faithfully. The party’s attempts to pin its collapse on his personal shortcomings of willpower are a completely predictable part of how that policy takes shape.

Any attempt to define this administration’s domestic program as reflecting the president’s personal identity has to grapple with the fact that it has precisely replicated the last Republican administration’s economic philosophy. The parallels between Trumpism and Bushism are almost eerie. Trump, like Bush, has filled the Executive branch with former and likely future lobbyists who “regulate” the industries they used to represent. (As a former coal lobbyist now working for Trump’s Energy Department staffers recently told a coal-mining conference: “I went to Washington, D.C., for one purpose and that was to help create coal jobs in the United States. That’s my total purpose for being there. I’m not a researcher, I’m not a scientist, I’m an advocate for the coal industry.”) Also like Bush, he has filled the bureaucracy with underqualified hacks. (Most recently, we learned that the acting chief of the Federal Railroad Administration was continuing to work for a public relations firm in Mississippi despite holding a putative full-time government job overseeing an agency with a $1.7 billion budget.)

What explains these choices? Trump’s lack of government experience and high tolerance (bordering on outright enthusiasm) for corruption haven’t hurt. But mainly he has defaulted to the preferences of his party’s existing power structure.

That explains why Trump has prioritized a tax-cut plan whose benefits disproportionately accrue to the wealthiest Americans and higher military spending: Republican elites strongly favor those priorities. And it also explains why he financed them with borrowing: The budget trade-offs necessary to pay for those things would blow up in Republicans’ faces. Under the George W. Bush presidency, Republicans enacted sweeping tax cuts and higher military spending, and promised the ensuing growth would pay for it all. (i.e., Bush from 2003: “These proposals will help stimulate investment and put more people back to work … that growth will bring the added benefit of higher revenues for the government.”) When that failed, they would blame Congress for spending too much (i.e., Bush from 2007: “What we need is spending discipline in Washington, D.C.”).

There’s been no transformation in Republican policy priorities. They are what they’ve been for decades, and what they’d be with any Republican president. This is getting even more ridiculous than people who think against all evidence that national Republicans actually support ACA-style healthcare reform. And yet, “blame Trump” will probably work as well as “blame Bush” did.

And while we can’t count on political reporters to remember anything, the next Democratic president needs to remember this too. Even if you see a “grand bargain” to secure tax increases as being desirable — which it’s not particularly — it’s not possible, because any tax increases you get will be swept away by the next unified Republican government. Democrats don’t need to be a fiscally irresponsible as Republicans, but ultimately it’s more important that new or expanded programs be popular than that they’ll be fully paid for, because any deficit reduction accomplished under a Democratic government will be undone or more the next time Republicans take power. Nothing could be clearer at this point.

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