THE ELECTION of President Trump has prompted a lot of talk about the checks and balances of the American constitutional system. As guarantors of freedom and stability, James Madison’s cherished devices — separation of powers, an independent judiciary, freedom of the press — will be tested as never before, it has been said. But another potential check on presidential action has gotten less attention: the sheer power of reality. There are some things Mr. Trump won’t be able to do because, well, he just can’t. Call it the reality check.
To be clear: We are not referring to political reality. Of course there are certain things the president can’t do, at least not immediately, because of opposition at home or abroad: In the face of Arab-world opposition, for example, he has hesitated on his promise to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. What we have in mind, rather, are things that are impossible, period — such as massively cutting taxes and leaving entitlement programs alone, while simultaneously reducing the federal debt. Or deconstructing the “administrative state ” while beefing up the federal government’s capacity to find and deport undocumented immigrants. Or protecting a sacrosanct right to gun ownership while stopping the mayhem in Chicago.
The contradictions have been heightening as Mr. Trump and his team attempt to cobble together a federal budget, with a blueprint for discretionary spending due on March 16. At his Senate hearing to be confirmed as treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin asserted forcefully that the Internal Revenue Service needed more funding, which would more than pay for itself in enhanced tax compliance. Yet the White House budget office, searching for cuts to pay for Mr. Trump’s proposed $54 billion defense increase, has proposed slashing the already tight IRS budget 14.1 percent. Mr. Trump is bound and determined to step up security along the U.S.-Mexico border, including by building a wall. To get the resources, his budgeters are reportedly targeting the Coast Guard’s $9 billion budget for a $1.3 billion cut. Sounds like an invitation for drug smugglers and migrants to come in by water instead of by land.
Mr. Trump’s pitch to the American electorate in 2016 was that they could have it all — low taxes and generous government benefits; a dynamic economy that “protects” existing jobs — and that the only thing preventing this nirvana was the perfidy of Washington’s elite. Entrust me with power, he declared, and everything will be different. Of all his many false promises, this was probably both the most effective and the phoniest. Government’s resources and capabilities are limited, and trade-offs are real. Like all his predecessors, Mr. Trump will be forced, by reality, to set priorities and make choices, whether he ever acknowledges that openly or not. And sooner or later, he will be held accountable for them.