Unlike most budget stories, the release of the Trump administration’s first budget proposal is dramatic — it’s got conflict, danger, suspense and an uncertain outcome. It has also done liberals a great favor, for the very reason they’re so up in arms about it.
By threatening to take a chainsaw to nearly every worthwhile thing the federal government does, the administration has made a better case for the liberal vision of government than Democrats themselves have managed in a long time.
To take just one example, you’ve seen more mentions of Meals on Wheels in the national news over the past 24 hours than you probably have over the past 24 years. And now, the fact that the federal government helps fund this beloved program, which few people realized before, is widely known.
It will be some time before we know how many of the Trump administration’s proposed cuts will actually wind up in the budget Congress passes; the safest prediction is that there will be plenty of damage done, but the carnage won’t be nearly as bad as the administration would like. But in the meantime, Democrats are outraged. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is even threatening a government shutdown.
“If Republicans insist on inserting poison pill riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood, building a border wall, or starting a deportation force, they will be shutting down the government and delivering a severe blow to our economy,” Schumer wrote in a letter to GOP leaders.
Meanwhile, the administration is acting like a caricature of the cruelhearted scrooges Democrats would like everyone to believe they are. The program that helps fund Meals on Wheels, Mulvaney said, is “just not showing any results.” I mean really — how many of those elderly shut-ins have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and gotten jobs? And as for after-school programs for kids, “There’s no demonstrable evidence,” Mulvaney said, that “they’re actually helping kids do better in school.” He said about climate change research that “we’re not spending money on that anymore.” As a result, even some Republicans are recoiling from the administration’s budget. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), who used to chair the House Appropriations Committee, called the cuts “draconian, careless and counterproductive.”
All this controversy should have liberals celebrating. Here are just some of the things Americans have been hearing about the federal government doing since the administration released its budget proposal, all of which the Trump administration would like to scale back or end altogether:
- Giving school lunches to hungry kids
- Providing after-school programs
- Feeding elderly people who can’t leave their homes
- Providing food assistance and support for low-income women with young children
- Supporting economic development in rural communities
- Cleaning up environmental damage
- Providing a national service program for young people to help communities around the country
- Working to stop climate change
- Conducting research to find cures for diseases
- Giving grants to libraries and museums
- Helping people afford housing
- Saving consumers money and helping the environment through the EnergyStar program
- Doing cutting-edge research on new sources of energy
- Helping to build roads and public transit systems
- Providing funds to local police departments to prevent terrorist attacks
- Conducting diplomacy to advance American interests around the world
It’s quite a list, and that’s only the beginning.
Political scientists have long known that on the whole Americans are “ideologically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” In other words, they like the idea of “small government” in the abstract, but they also like nearly everything government does. This Pew Research Center poll, for instance, asked about 19 different government programs, and majorities said they wanted to either increase funding or keep it the same for 18 of them. The sole exception was foreign aid, which Americans mistakenly believe makes up a huge portion of the budget (it’s actually around one percent). This divide between the abstract and the specific is why Republicans tend to speak in broad generalizations about government while Democrats talk about specific programs they want to protect.
Nevertheless, liberals face a problem in making their case for government, which is that so much of what government does is either opaque, hidden or taken for granted — at least the good parts. You know you’re dealing with the government when you have to pay your taxes or wait a couple of hours at the DMV, but you don’t thank the government every time you drive on a road it built or use the Internet it helped create.
Americans are also determined not to think of themselves as recipients of government assistance, even when they are. Political scientist Suzanne Mettler describes this as the “submerged state,” a government that has become invisible to its beneficiaries. In her surveys, even many recipients of Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and student loans insisted that they had never been the beneficiary of a government program. It’s the dilemma captured by the oft-told story of the elderly constituent who tells his congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have their frustrations with that state of affairs. Republicans don’t like seeing voters nod their heads when they talk about small government only to encounter staunch resistance when they try to make actual cuts to programs. Democrats find it hard to talk about protecting (or even expanding) what government does when there are such negative associations with the idea of “government.”
The budget controversy has an obvious parallel with the health-care debate we’re having. Republicans throw around meaningless terms like “patient-centered” and “flexible” to describe what they want in health care, only to be shocked when Americans are unnerved by the thought of millions losing their coverage. It’s no accident that Obamacare was unpopular so long as it was a nebulous boogeyman Republicans could blame for everything anyone might not like about the American health-care system, but now that they might take it away and we’re having a lot of debate about what that would mean in concrete terms, the popularity of the program is higher than ever before.
So this is an excellent ideological moment for liberals. The Trump administration has started a refreshing debate on what government does, and what eviscerating it actually means for Americans’ lives. Even if the end of the process will be a lot painful cuts to vital services — Republicans are in charge, after all — between now and then, at least we can make clear to everyone what’s being lost, and whose fault it is.