What if I told you that a Republican wanted to cut taxes, increase defense spending, slowly slash Medicaid, leave Social Security and Medicare untouched for now, and gut the rest of the government?
You'd probably say that you'd heard enough about Speaker of the House Paul D. Ryan's budget, and it was time to talk about President Trump's instead. But we are. While he's only outlined it in the broadest possible strokes, the basics of Trump's budget wouldn't be out of place in, say, a report from the conservative Heritage Foundation. Which is to say that the idea that Trump and Ryan are set up for a “striking clash,” as the New York Times put it, over taxes and spending is mostly wrong. Their budget priorities might not be entirely simpatico, but their differences aren't irreconcilable either. They're staying together for the tax cuts.
About those. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, Trump's campaign proposal would amount to a $6.2 trillion tax cut over the next decade, of which 47.3 percent would go to the top 1 percent of households. Ryan's, meanwhile, would be a $3.1 trillion tax cut, of which 99.6 percent would go to the top 1 percent. So they agree that the rich should get about a $3 trillion tax cut, but disagree whether anyone else should get anything else. This is not the stuff of bitter ideological disputes. They're going to cut the top tax rate, and everything else, as far as they're concerned, is just a detail.
It's the same on the spending side. Trump wants to boost military spending by 10 percent; Ryan by a little less. Trump wants to radically reduce outlays on things as the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department by as much as 30 percent, so that nondefense discretionary spending would fall to its smallest share of the economy in 55 years; Ryan hopes to similarly shrink the non-Social Security, non-Medicare part of the government from the 12 percent of GDP it is today to just 3.75 percent of GDP, albeit over a matter of decades, not days. Trump's team has said they will turn Medicaid into a “block grant,” where funding would be fixed, and wouldn't increase as needed, or, in all likelihood, enough to keep up with medical inflation; Ryan has championed these as a way to give states the flexibility to supposedly find new efficiencies (and, if history is any guide, dramatically cut Medicaid over time).
That brings us to the one budgetary battleground where Trump and Ryan have staked out opposing positions: entitlements. Trump has said over and over and over again that he won't cut Social Security or Medicare, while Ryan has made a name for himself with his plans to either privatize Social Security or voucherize Medicare or both. This is the difference between thinking tax cuts never have to be paid for, and thinking that they do have to be in the long run — which, if you're cynical enough, might not be any difference at all. How is that? Well, the important thing to remember is that Ryan only wants to change Social Security or Medicare for tomorrow's seniors, not today's. But the problem, as the saying goes, is that we're all dead in the long run, and, in the meantime, future Congresses might undo all the entitlement cuts you put off to them. So for the next 10 years — i.e., the time that's within their control — Trump and Ryan actually have the same entitlement plan. That's doing nothing.
No, the biggest difference between the two is that Trump is only slightly less worried about deficits than Ryan is. Now, if you listened to the political reporters who only pay attention to what Ryan says and not what he does, you'd think that he was fatally allergic to red ink. In reality, though, he voted for tax cuts that weren't paid for, voted for wars that weren't paid for, and voted for an entitlement that wasn't paid for in Medicare Part D the last time Republicans controlled the government. Not to mention that his budgets have always relied on unspecified savings — a.k.a. “magic asterisks” — that he simply asserts will show up. That's the budgetary equivalent of saying not that the dog ate your homework, but that the dog will do your homework.
Trump, then, has just elevated this Republican indifference over Republican deficits to insouciance. He sees Ryan's deficit-financed tax cuts for the rich, and raises him $137 billion worth of tax breaks for infrastructure and somewhere between $115 billion and $500 billion of them for child care (most of which would also benefit high earners). Deficits might still matter, but they won't matter enough to stop the GOP from throwing as many tax-cut goodies as it takes to get them passed.
Trump, in other words, is changing Republican orthodoxy on trade and foreign policy, but not on taxes and spending. It's still the same old deficits-for-me-but-not-for-thee. Just a little classier than before.