Now we’re talking real money.
With President Trump detailing the budget cuts he would make to pay for his sharp rise in defense spending, the battle for control of the swamp is getting under way.
The apocalyptic reaction, led by the media, reminds me of 1981, when Ronald Reagan proposed what were then described as draconian proposals to slash the budget. Trump’s cutbacks are far larger. And it’s worth noting that while Reagan got much of what he wanted, the federal budget wound up being bigger by the end of his tenure, and he didn’t eliminate a major agency.
But even the smaller cuts that Trump wants to make are hard because every program in that gargantuan budget has a fiercely loyal constituency backed up by lobbyists who know how many jobs would be lost and in which congressional districts.
Those who don’t want their programs slashed have a built-in PR advantage. They can generate coverage of real-life victims who would be hurt by the withdrawal of this or that federal subsidy, while the other side has to make abstract arguments: Government is too wasteful, the deficit is out of control, we’re living beyond our means.
A Washington Post headline: “Massive cuts to the arts, science and the poor.”
A New York Times headline: “Trump Proposes Eliminating the Arts and Humanities Endowments.”
A Huffington Post headline: "Trump Government Bloodletting."
A BuzzFeed headline: “Slash and Bird”—with a picture of Big Bird, since Trump would end aid to PBS, along with National Public Radio.
Some of this is part of a culture war, and Republicans have tried before to zero out PBS. While big-city stations and programs like “News Hour” and “Sesame Street” would survive, some of the smaller of PBS’s 350 stations would be faced with extinction.
Another Washington Post story ticks off some of the subsidized services that lower-income people rely upon:
“If you’re a poor person in America, Trump’s budget is not for you.” It “would slash or abolish programs that have provided low-income Americans with help on virtually all fronts, including affordable housing, banking, weatherizing homes, job training, paying home heating oil bills, and obtaining legal counsel in civil matters.”
A New York Times piece says that many Trump voters would be among those penalized:
“Some of the budget losers, it turns out, may be some of the very constituencies that have been most supportive of the new president during his improbable rise to power.
“While border guards will have more prisons to lock up unauthorized immigrants, rural communities will lose grants and loans to build water facilities and financing to keep their airports open. As charter schools are bolstered, after-school and summer programs will lose money. As law enforcement agents get more help to fight the opioid epidemic, lower-income Americans will have less access to home energy aid, job training programs and legal services.”
All this is true. It’s also the price that must be paid to slim down government—although Trump is demanding deeper cuts in part to offset his proposed $54-billion boost in defense spending and his planned tax cuts.
Of course, some agencies employ the Washington Monument defense, singling out the services that will most outrage the public as opposed to the training and research programs where much of the fact may lie. (No threat to close the monument this year, since it’s already shut down for repairs.)
It’s reminiscent in some ways of the ObamaCare debate, where the rallying cry of repealing the program is being tempered by the impact on millions of Americans who could lose their coverage.
No president gets everything they want in a budget. But by taking an ax to so many programs, Trump has created a major test with Congress in what is likely to be an unsympathetic media climate.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.