The G.O.P.’s Fiscal Hawks Fly Far Away From Deficit Fights

The first skirmish of the Republican presidential primary of 2024 broke through this weekend. It was not over a traditional theme of conservative politics, such as national defense, or more contemporary issues like immigration or “woke” social policy.

Instead, the political organizations of former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida put their candidates forward as the guardians of the Democratic Party’s most precious policy legacies: Social Security and Medicare.

The jousting between Mr. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and Mr. DeSantis, his undeclared and closest rival, signaled that after a decade of rising deficits, soaring debt and political silence from both parties, any grappling with the nation’s worsening fiscal condition will not be shaped by the Republican White House contenders. The party that once prided itself on cleareyed fiscal truth-telling — a message marred, without doubt, by successive tax-cutting — is still having none of it.

And that signal came at a most inopportune moment, as House Republican leaders are girding for a fight over the government’s borrowing limit, linking any increase in the debt ceiling with tough spending cuts that the leaders of the party in 2024 show no interest in.

“The facts are still on our side, and history is on our side,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office who guided the fiscal policies of John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s just a bad era.”

There was nothing particularly Republican in the exchange of advertisements posted by the super PACs of Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis. On Friday, Make America Great Again Inc., a Trump-aligned political action committee, started running an advertisement declaring, “DeSantis has his dirty fingers all over senior entitlements, like cutting Medicare, slashing Social Security, even raising our retirement age.”

The DeSantis-linked Never Back Down PAC responded by accusing Mr. Trump of “repeating lies about Social Security,” then showed Mr. DeSantis saying, “We’re not going to mess with Social Security as Republicans.”

With that backdrop, Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California went on Monday to the New York Stock Exchange to try to prod President Biden into negotiations on the deficit, telling leaders in finance, “I want to talk to you about the debate that is not happening in Washington but should be happening over our national debt,” then adding, “America deserves to hear the truth.”

The problem with that truth is the math: With Republicans vowing once again not to raise taxes, exempting Social Security and Medicare from spending cuts would mean everything else funded by the federal government — the military, veterans’ programs, Medicaid, medical research, education, energy development — would need to be cut by 52 percent to balance the budget by 2033, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group that is highly critical of both parties.

If the Social Security and Medicare exemption was extended to the military at a time when Republicans want to confront the threat from China, everything else needs to be cut by 70 percent. If veterans' programs were also protected, Medicaid and a host of other programs — food stamps, NASA, the National Institutes of Health, agricultural subsidies, food safety inspections, federal student aid, air traffic controllers, weather forecasters, National Parks, health care for the poor and self-employed, and much more — would need to be cut by 78 percent.

“It used to be that everybody fought for political giveaways, but in the end, everybody knew the truth, so there was room for trade-offs and hard compromises,” said Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “There is no good, hard governance anymore.”

It has been just over a decade since Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, selected as his running mate the party’s embodiment of hair-shirt policymaking, Paul D. Ryan. At the time, then-Representative Ryan did not flinch in his assertions that the retiring baby boom generation made benefit cuts to Social Security and Medicare absolutely vital to the nation’s future.

And as a House member a decade ago, Mr. DeSantis readily embraced what was then the mainstream Republican position, voting repeatedly for Ryan-style changes to Social Security and Medicare that went nowhere, and promoting the restructuring of entitlements to make them “sustainable over the long term.”

But in the loss of the Romney-Ryan ticket in 2012, Mr. Trump saw a lesson for his own presidential aspirations. And four years later, the business executive and reality television star ran on the improbable pledge to balance the budget, pay off the entire federal debt and never ever cut Social Security and Medicare.

“Trump figured out in 2016 that an older, more working class, more populist party would become increasingly against fixing Social Security and Medicare, and he was right,” said Brian Riedl, who served as a budget adviser to former Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and is now a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “It’s clearly good politics to recast yourself as the defender of Social Security and Medicare. It’s just bad for the country.”

More on the Debt Limit

Deficits rose every year of the Trump presidency, from the $590 billion he inherited in the 2016 fiscal year, to $670 billion in 2017, $780 billion in 2018, $980 billion the following year, then a staggering $3.13 trillion in the pandemic year of 2020. By Mr. Riedl’s calculations, Mr. Trump added $7.8 trillion in deficit spending over 10 years through legislation and executive orders during his four years.

That Mr. Trump fulfilled none of his promises of fiscal rectitude did not seem to matter; fiscal policy hardly came up during the campaign of 2020 and has not exactly reverberated in the Biden years either.

“Neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden has shown any interest in disciplining spending,” said Judd Gregg, a Republican and former New Hampshire senator who made a career of pushing for long-term deficit reduction. “But inevitably this comes to an end at some point — a herd of elephants coming over the horizon.”

The herd is coming in two forms. The first is the aging baby boom generation, which is already driving up Social Security and Medicare costs. The number of Social Security recipients will rise from 44 million in 2010 to 73 million in 2030, raising Social Security spending from 4.8 percent of the economy to 5.9 percent.

The second is interest on the national debt, which must cover interest rates that are rising after years of rock-bottom prices, driving up the cost of serving the government’s $31 trillion debt. After steep declines in the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years that Mr. Biden bragged about on Tuesday, the federal deficit in the first half of 2023 reached $1.1 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office, up $430 billion from the first half of the previous fiscal year. Interest payments rose from $219 billion to $308 billion, a 41 percent leap that put debt servicing nearly on par with military spending.

“You can’t have interest payments that are higher than defense payments, yet that’s the track we’re on in the next five years,” Ms. MacGuineas said. “We’re the frog in the boiling water.”

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