Movement conservatives, including those who were initially leery of a Donald Trump presidency, are finding much to celebrate these days.
The president is advancing their causes on many fronts: cutting taxes, remaking the judiciary, rolling back regulations. Many on the right are even inclined to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on his protectionist trade policies, accepting his assurances that a strong-arm strategy is needed to bring down tariffs and other barriers in the long run.
But there is a shadow over all this, and it is growing too big and dark to be rationalized away.
That nagging issue is the federal deficit, now projected to reach $1 trillion by 2020 — a level unprecedented during good economic times. When growth is healthy and unemployment is low, the government has almost always narrowed the gap between revenue and spending, even running a surplus between 1998 and 2001 during the dot-com boom.
The Trump administration is heading in the opposite direction. GOP tax cuts have reduced the amount the government collects from corporations to a historic low, even as the president pushes ahead with more spending, including $12 billion in emergency aid to farmers hurt by his tariffs. Trump has taken entitlement reform off the table, and he is also calling for a second round of tax reductions, possibly coming to a vote before November’s midterm elections.
Remember when Republicans were presumed to be the party that cared about fiscal responsibility?
Fewer and fewer of them seem to anymore, though there are still occasional voices sounding the alarm inside the ranks of what has become the whatever-Trump-says party.
“Tax reform, I think, was something that’s crucial. But I do believe that we’ve got to make sure that we’re keeping our fiscal house in order. Otherwise, it’s going to seem like 20 years of hypocrisy,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told me last weekend between sessions at a conference held here to consider the state of conservatism in the Trump era and beyond.
“The administration has been given a pass for the first year and a half,” added Walker, who is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus within the House GOP majority that opposed the $1.3 trillion spending bill Trump signed this year.
That concern came up repeatedly during the two-day meeting organized by blogger and commentator Erick Erickson. He dubbed it the Resurgent Gathering and plans to make it an annual event.
The conference, attended by about 300 people, was low-key and substantive — not a right-wing carnival like the yearly Conservative Political Action Conference, or a partisan pep rally in the vein of the RedState Gatherings that Erickson used to put together as a showcase for presidential contenders.
Erickson himself has had a tortured relationship with Trumpism, having opposed the president’s nomination in 2016. As a result of that apostasy, he was unable to attract any of the party’s biggest names to speak at his latest venture.
But Erickson has persisted in raising questions that many on the right would rather not confront, even as he has conceded that Trump’s presidency has achieved more conservative goals than he thought it would.
“What does it mean, in the 21st century, to be a conservative? In the age of political cults of personality, some would argue that it means standing with President Trump at all costs,” he wrote in an essay posted at the outset of the conference, adding, “It should be a no-brainer that Republicans stand with their party leader. But should not conservatives, as an ideological movement, be willing to stand up and battle for ideas, not just to ‘own the left,’ as Republican activists these days say?”
Tribalism has indeed come to replace conviction for many Republicans. Trump’s approval within the party has attained levels unmatched by any president except George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11, despite policies that have put the country on a course toward deeper and deeper debt.
“It is somewhat disheartening to spend eight years under [President] Barack Obama railing about debt and deficits and then see Republicans spend even more in this first year under Donald Trump,” Erickson said.
History suggests there will be consequences, both economically and electorally. Ronald Reagan also left a trail of red ink. His successor, George H.W. Bush, had to agree to a budget deal that raised taxes and destroyed his hopes for a second term. That laid the predicate for a revival of the Democrats, with Bill Clinton leading to the restoration of fiscal sanity. Nearly two decades later, backlash to spending and the growth of government helped ignite the tea party movement, which turned its fury on the GOP establishment as well as Democrats.
Today’s out-of-whack budgets may well define what kind of future conservatism will have, once Trump has left the scene.
As some Republicans are starting to figure out, they would do well to start worrying about that now.