If you knew anything about the Republican Party in the decade leading up to the 2016 presidential election, it was this: They thought government spending was WAY out of control and believed we need to get the country’s deficit spending and resultant soaring debt under control.
John McCain spent the entirety of his 2008 presidential campaign talking about how out-of-control government spending posed the most serious threat to the well-being of his children and grandchildren. Paul Ryan’s rise from little-known Wisconsin congressman to 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee was fueled by his policy prescriptions aimed at bringing down the deficit. Heck, even Jeb Bush, in the early days of his race for the 2016 nomination, criticized his own older brother for not bringing “budget discipline to Washington, D.C.!”
All of which makes this exchange between longtime conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh and a caller to his show on Tuesday all the more notable. Here it is:
CALLER: In 2019, there’s gonna be a $1 trillion deficit. Trump doesn’t really care about that. He’s not really a fiscal conservative. We have to acknowledge that Trump has been cruelly used.
LIMBAUGH: Nobody is a fiscal conservative anymore. All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around.
Uh, what? “All this talk about concern for the deficit and the budget has been bogus for as long as it’s been around????” Did anyone mention that to the Republican Party of the last 30 or so years? Or to the Rush Limbaugh of even a few years ago, who bashed then-President Barack Obama repeatedly for the uptick in the debt and deficit?
What’s changed? Nothing, other than the occupant of the White House – and his clear disregard for deficit spending as an issue. Trump’s much-lauded – by him – tax cut law of 2017 is set to add $1.85 trillion to the national debt over an 11-year period, according to projections from the Congressional Budget Office. The national debt has already grown to $22 trillion – up more than $2 trillion since Trump came into office.
In those heady days of the 2016 campaign, Trump talked a good game on finding ways to reduce spending and cut into the underlying national debt. On balancing the federal budget, Trump told conservative TV host Sean Hannity this in 2016:
“It can be done. … It will take place and it will go relatively quickly. … If you have the right people, like, in the agencies and the various people that do the balancing … you can cut the numbers by two pennies and three pennies and balance a budget quickly and have a stronger and better country.”
In truth, Trump’s talk about how he would cut the deficit feels like a sort of one-off – designed, at the time, to throw a bone to a conservative base who remained somewhat leery of him. When he actually won the White House, his alleged plans regarding reducing the deficit went straight out the window. “Nobody cares,” was reportedly White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s response when GOP lawmakers asked why there was no mention of the deficit in Trump’s 2019 State of the Union speech.
While no one should be surprised that Trump abandoned his promises on the budget deficit, it is stunning to consider how quickly the rest of the party – from its elected officials to its most prominent unelected forces like Limbaugh – seemingly rolled over on what they had long maintained was an issue at the core of conservatism. The idea that Limbaugh would try to pretend that this was all just for show – solely because Trump is President and Trump doesn’t care – is astounding stuff.
As I’ve noted before, there is a clear and present danger to the GOP’s willingness to abandon at least some of its first principles in order to keep Trump happy – or, more accurately, in order to keep him from turning on them and siccing the GOP base on their reelection campaigns. And that danger is this: If the party is built solely around a person without any underlying, unwavering principles, then it’s not a party at all. It’s a cult of personality.