Republican Senator Rand Paul has long been a favorite among rank-and-file fiscal conservatives and libertarians. Thursday night, Paul added to his popularity by taking to the floor of the Senate to delay passage of Trump’s latest bipartisan spending deal. In his speech, Senator Paul called Republicans “intellectually dishonest” and “hypocrites” because they supported President Trump’s deficit-spending after opposing similar deficit spending by President Obama. The Senator’s words may become the mainstream media’s predominant interpretation of Trump-era Republicans, much like Lee Atwater’s words became the canonical media interpretation of Reagan-era Republicans.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi engaged in similar, but more pointless, political grandstanding. She, along with senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and several other populist Democrats cited DACA as their reason to oppose the Republican spending bill. Of course, if there were really a chance that opposition would block the legislation to the point of government shutdown, these politicians—including Rand Paul—would cave.
Abstaining or voting “nay” is a commonplace maneuver by congressional demagogues who know that a particular bill will pass with or without their support. This technique avoids future blame for negative effects of the bill and enables the politician to appear above the two-party system. Of course, when it comes down to a party-line vote where their support is needed, these same populist politicians reliably side with their party. Bernie Sanders supported ObamaCare despite his constant haranguing for a single-payer system. Rand Paul supported the Tax Reform bill despite his stance on a flat tax.
Senator Paul staked out for himself an unassailable moral high ground, Thursday. Not only does the spending bill he opposes kick the deficit can down the road, it also continues to fund the whole gamut of Democrat goodies, including Planned Parenthood abortion clinics. That is why conservative pundits everywhere are praising Rand Paul for his speech. Ben Shapiro even went so far as to use Rand Paul’s criticism of Republicans against the Tea Party, who he claims has been “soul sucked” by Trumpism.
Pundits miss the point. Politics is the art of the possible. And, right now, attacking structural spending issues is outside the realm of political possibility. An entire voting bloc of Baby Boomers is in some measure dependent on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which comprise half of federal spending. Politicians who touch this issue are depicted throwing elderly women to their death. Trump’s election victory was in no small part due to his constant reassurance that he would save rather than cut these entitlement programs.
The political moment to tackle the deficit cannot arrive until Americans begin to talk openly and honestly about entitlement spending. This includes dropping euphemistic language about a Social Security “trust fund”, and calling entitlements what they are: transfer payments from the young to the old. Unfortunately, as Oprah opined on the race issue, America may need to wait for a whole new generation—one that hasn’t marinated in lies—in order to fix this.
The Art of the Possible
The immigration issue offers a Republican Congress the chance to accomplish something. The very same structural difficulties and social anxieties that make the spending problem intractable make the immigration issue solvable. Democrat voters who are concerned about their pension plans are not excited about immigrants becoming eligible for government benefits. Rust Belt workers worried about losing their jobs are not excited about the prospect of competing with new immigrant labor.
Since last September, President Trump has been posturing for a New Deal on immigration. By repealing Obama’s DACA executive order, Trump put the pressure on Congressional Democrats to help pass a legislative version of that bill. The deadline for an immigration bill is March 5th, when Trump’s repeal goes into effect.
Over the last few months, however, bickering about continuing resolutions to fund the government muddied the waters surrounding an immigration deal. With each successive iteration of the budget fight, Democrats threatened to shut down the government unless DACA was reinstated. As the March 5th deadline approaches, Democrat leverage on this front could only increase. In order to get these conflating issues off the table, Trump needed a spending bill that would give moderate Democrats no choice but to cross the aisle and sign on. Now that the bipartisan bill has passed and spending issues are temporarily resolved, President Trump and the Republican Congress are free to deal directly with the immigration issue.
Democrats are in a corner. After working with Trump on a bipartisan spending bill, it will be difficult for Democrats to oppose a bipartisan immigration reform bill that enshrines DACA into law. If Democrats filibuster the bill, Trump can simply let the DACA executive protections expire, and point at the Democrats in Congress. No matter how Democrats attempt to spin the causality of the situation, “Dreamers” and other immigrants will realize that their suffering is directly related to the Democrat filibuster and that the suffering will end as soon as the filibuster does.
Contrast this situation to the future preferred by conservative purists, where Rand Paul continues to oppose Trump’s spending bill:
Government shuts down as no budget resolution gets passed
Blame for Congressional dysfunction falls entirely on Republican party infighting, rather than Democrat intransigence.
Rand Paul touts a hypothetical, fiscally-sound budget created by the Heritage Foundation.
Democrats respond, “how can you increase military spending while cutting Americans’ [insert entitlement here]?”
Democrats promise to fight for “Dreamers” and every other group victimized by Paul’s budget.
Republicans are utterly defeated in 2018.
What good does that do?
Holding Trump Accountable
Some readers may be tempted to see my argument as a post hoc apology for Trump’s non-conservative government spending. But that is not the case. I, too, want to hold Donald Trump accountable. However, unlike most political pundits on the Right, I refuse to hold Trump to the standard of my own unattainable wishful thinking—even when that wishful thinking is given eloquent expression by the likes of Rand Paul. Instead, I endeavor to hold Trump accountable to the promises he actually made on the campaign trail.
Donald Trump never appeared to me like a Paul Ryan. In fact, I don’t remember Trump claiming to be fiscally conservative at all. What I heard Trump promise to me and my fellow conservatives was that he would fight the culture war, restore American greatness, win America’s wars, and tackle immigration in a conservative-friendly way. If Trump accomplishes these things over his four years as President, it would be folly to consider his presidency a failure merely because he did not live up to the fiscal expectations of my favorite libertarian demagogue.
Perhaps, next time around, Republicans will nominate a fiscal conservative in their primary. If so, I will happily vote for that candidate. But, until then, let’s work with what we have, and help Trump accomplish what he went to Washington to do.