Americans know President Donald Trump is an outrageous, scandal-ridden character. They knew it when he won in 2016. If Democrats want to beat him in 2020, they’ll likely have to run against by doing more than just run against him as the public disgrace that he is. They’ll have to run against him the way they would against any other Republican.
And this week, Trump seems prepared to give Democrats a gift that will help them do just that — if they’re willing to accept it.
It came in the form of the new White House budget, which seeks to slash federal government spending by $4.8 trillion over a decade. Those cuts come from many valuable and popular programs that voters like, some of which Trump has previously defended. And if Democrats are smart, they’ll hammer home Trump’s betrayal.
To be clear, a White House budget isn’t law, and it isn’t going to become law. Congress determines federal government spending, and the president’s budget simply reflects the White House’s ideal vision of spending priorities. But exactly because the White House budget doesn’t have the force of law, critics can pin the values and priorities demonstrated in the plan entirely on the president. And Trump’s opponents should be able to use his budget to show that he’s out of step with what the American people want and abandoning many of his previous promises.
Let’s start with Medicaid. During the 2016 campaign, Trump famously declared on Twitter: “I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid.”
In office, however, Trump has continued the GOP crusade against Medicaid. The new budget, like of his previous budgets, proposes to cut $920 billion from Medicaid, the Washington Post reported, savings that would come in part by implementing work requirements intended to kick people off the program and shrink its enrollment.
Even though Medicaid is generally seen as more politically vulnerable than Medicare or Social Security — since it is more focused on helping low-income people, rather than the elderly — there’s growing evidence that targeting Medicaid is bad politics for the GOP. Last November, Democrats made significant electoral gains in Virginia and Kentucky, and there’s good reason to believe voters were casting their ballots in favor of Medicaid. More broadly, Medicaid expansion, a key part of Obamacare, has slowly been gaining traction in more conservative states as the irresistible popularity of expanding government coverage becomes impossible to ignore.
Recent polling has shown that Trump is vulnerable on the health care issue in key swing states, so Democrats may gain a real advantage by running against the proposed cuts to Medicaid in the fall. (And of course, Trump and the Republican Party are backing a lawsuit that seeks to destroy Obamacare entirely, which could rip Medicaid coverage and individual insurance away from millions more.)
Medicare and Social Security aren’t spared in Trump’s budget, either. Though Trump said on Saturday, “We will not be touching your Social Security or Medicare in Fiscal 2021 Budget,” (now leaving out his previous promise on Medicaid) the programs will, in fact, be impacted.
The cuts to Medicare are a bit complicated. President Barack Obama proposed cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from the Medicare budget by limiting payments to providers, but the intention was to control costs rather than to restrict benefits. Trump’s budget proposes a similar tactic, and it’s hard to say what effect it will really have and whether some beneficiaries may lose out because of the changes. But in 2012, Mitt Romney and other Republicans attacked Obama relentlessly because of this cost-control tactic — despite having no intention to reverse it themselves — so Trump shouldn’t be surprised if Democrats use the same criticisms.
And while Trump continues to say he won’t touch Social Security, the budget does in fact make cuts to the program’s payments to people with disabilities. Republicans defend these cuts by saying they’ll crack down on fraud, but such efforts inevitably burden people who are genuinely in need and may erroneously limit benefits from people who should qualify for the program.
Aside from these core programs, the budget seeks cuts from food stamps, environmental regulation, and even Health and Human Services — a particularly stunning move given that the coronavirus is exposing the importance of epidemic preparedness. At the same time, it raises spending on the already bloated military, despite Trump’s promise to pull the country back from overseas adventures.
In light of the mismatch between Trump’s rhetoric and his budget, and following the GOP’s massive 2017 tax cut for the wealthy, Democrats should have ample material to pin him down as an out-of-touch plutocrat seeking to deprive Americans of health care and food while raining riches on his wealthy cronies. They just need to find a way to make the message stick.