Skip to content
A Fight About Nothing
Go to my account

A Fight About Nothing

Well, almost nothing.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.)

The history of Republican cynicism about the debt ceiling can be summarized in two social media posts. The first was published two weeks ago by citizen Trump.

The second, shared in a recent piece by Jonathan Chait, was published four years ago and features a soundbite from then-President Trump.

From “sacred element” in 2019 to “play tough” now. The man’s ethics (such as they are) have always been situational, but even for Trump, that’s pretty Trump.

He might argue that his mind has changed because circumstances have changed. Inflation wasn’t a problem four years ago. It is now, which makes this an opportune time to reduce federal spending. And our debt has grown by trillions of dollars since 2019 because of emergency outlays taken during the pandemic. (It grew by trillions of dollars during Trump’s presidency before the pandemic, too, thanks to Republican profligacy.) America hasn’t merely ignored its looming fiscal crisis since the Tea Party emerged, it’s accelerated toward it. We face desperate times, and desperate times call for desperate measures. Brinkmanship over the debt ceiling might be the only way to change course.

What if the party doesn’t want to change course?

It’s revealing that Trump’s call for Republicans to “play tough” on debt ceiling negotiations mentions no concrete demands, just a gassy insistence on getting “almost everything back.” Having a fight with Democrats is the priority; the specific concessions that might be extracted are an afterthought. No one expects better from Trump, who’s the opposite of a policy wonk, but it’s notable that Kevin McCarthy and his caucus also have yet to offer anything resembling a consensus on what Joe Biden should agree to in exchange for a debt ceiling hike. All Republicans know is that they’re keen to take a hostage. The ransom is a detail, a blank to be filled in as this game of political Mad Libs plays out.

A party that’s serious about solving the debt crisis would have a concrete ask: entitlement reform. There’s no plausible path to balancing the budget long-term without it. A party that isn’t serious about solving the crisis would, by contrast, insist that entitlement reform is the one thing it won’t demand. Which brings us to a third social media post destined for the annals of Republican fiscal irresponsibility, a video statement published three days ago by the leader of the GOP announcing that cuts to Medicare and Social Security should be off the table.

Anyone who utters the phrase “waste, fraud, and abuse” in explaining how to close a trillion-dollar budget hole is confessing their unseriousness. Trump pointing to “left-wing gender programs from our military” as a potential source of meaningful savings is icing on the cake.

If Medicare and Social Security are sacrosanct, the one place left in the budget to find real savings is defense. But that’s a nonstarter as well. Congressional Republicans still trend hawkish despite the isolationist MAGA minority in their midst. They’ll be loath to hobble the Pentagon at a moment of rising tensions with China. And the populist obsession with “toughness,” particularly vis-a-vis liberals, will make even some Trumpers squeamish about pushing hard for defense cuts. Remember, despite his antipathy to interventions abroad, the strongman Trump touted himself as “the most militaristic person you will ever meet” as a candidate in 2015.

Can’t cut entitlements. Can’t cut the military. So what is the fight over the debt ceiling about?

It’s a fight about nothing. Almost.

The worst part of Trump’s video isn’t how it’ll influence McCarthy’s caucus. House Republicans weren’t going to reform entitlements regardless, knowing how unpopular doing so would be. Nancy Mace is as close to a serious conservative as the current congressional GOP gets and she was quick to dismiss the idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare in an interview on Sunday.

The worst part is how Trump’s opposition to reform will deepen the mistaken impression among Republican voters that the budget can be balanced without targeting their favorite programs.

“This is probably a galaxy brain take,” Semafor reporter Dave Weigel tweeted on Monday morning, “but because Dems opted not to use the debt ceiling as leverage, I’d bet most people just don’t think it had to be raised under Trump.” That’s not an outlandish take at all; Americans are chronically ill-informed about government spending and doubtless less informed about procedural arcana like the debt ceiling. In the absence of good information people make assumptions based on stereotypes, and the stereotype about Republicans is that they’re the party of fiscal responsibility.

I had occasion this weekend to chat with some relatives about it. You should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them that the debt increased under Trump—a lot—and that it was a Republican Congress during his first years in office that was rubber-stamping those immense deficits. The debt limit was raised without incident no fewer than three times during his presidency. It wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of the GOP electorate erroneously believes that raising the debt ceiling is about taking on new debt rather than paying off debt that’s already been incurred and that such things only happen when big-government tax-and-spend Democrats are in the White House. 

If the most powerful figure in the “party of fiscal responsibility” is on camera ruling out entitlement reform, assuring his followers that the budget can be balanced without touching their benefits, the straits we’re in are more dire than we feared. So why is Trump doing it? If the House caucus isn’t going to cut Medicare and Social Security in any event, why would he go on record to draw that line in the sand?

I think it’s part of the civil war that’s raged within the party since he entered politics in 2015.

That war is more personal than philosophical. Trump’s twisted obsession with “loyalty” leaves him forever on the hunt for old-school Republicans like Liz Cheney and Brian Kemp who won’t do his bidding uncritically. But there’s a philosophical divide as well that was clear from the start of his first run for president. “I will do everything within my power not to touch Social Security, to leave it the way it is,” he said at a rally in 2016, breaking with fiscal conservative orthodoxy. That same year he was asked about reforming Social Security and blamed entitlement reform for Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012: “That was the end of that campaign, by the way, when they chose [Paul] Ryan. And I like him. He’s a nice person, but that was the end of the campaign.”

Two years later, as president, he was still positioning himself as a champion of entitlements. “They’re going to hurt your Social Security so badly, and they’re killing you on Medicare. Just remember that. I’m going to protect your Social Security,” he said, not specifying who “they” were. Trump being Trump, his position has wavered from time to time. But his commitment to protecting entitlements is a rare example of intellectual consistency from him and essential to his image as a populist. It was the “old” pre-Trump GOP led by conservatives like Ryan, after all, who wanted to take away grandma’s benefits for silly reasons like America no longer being able to afford them. The “new” populist-nationalist GOP led by Trump and staffed by figures like J.D. Vance would never deprive grandma of the benefits she’s earned, solvency be damned.

The ideological tension between small(er)-government conservatives and big-government populists persists to this day and not just in attitudes toward spending. Support for Ukraine is another fault line between them. But entitlement reform is the supreme flashpoint because the stakes around the issue are so enormous. To shrink government and balance the budget, fiscal cons must target Medicare and Social Security. To protect the “forgotten man” and the elderly, populists must protect Medicare and Social Security. No wonder that a squirrelly opportunist like Kevin McCarthy has sounded open to reforming entitlements and opposed depending on what day he’s asked about it.

Something’s got to give—eventually. Because public opinion is firmly on the populists’ side, fiscal conservatives want nothing to do with entitlement reform right now. But just because the Paul Ryan wing of the party is too chicken to engage on the issue doesn’t mean populists won’t force them into engaging. Last week Rolling Stone revealed why Trump is suddenly so keen to restate his support for Medicare and Social Security: He’s planning to use it as a cudgel against old-school Tea Party guy Ron DeSantis in the 2024 primary.

For Trump, DeSantis may be easy to paint as a heartless budget-slasher. During his stint in the House from 2013 to 2018, DeSantis was a founding member of Freedom Caucus — the hardest of the hardline members of the GOP conference. “He was part of the team,” Freedom Caucus founder and former Arizona Rep. Matt Salmon tells Rolling Stone. Salmon further praises DeSantis as “one of the most principled people I ever got a chance to work with.”

At the time before the rise of Trumpism in 2015 and 2016, those principles were all about constraining government spending by repealing Obamacare and pursuing “entitlement reform.” In 2013, during DeSantis’ first year in office, he voted for a far-right budget resolution that sought to balance the federal budget in just four years — twice as fast as a competing measure by Ryan that got the Republican budget wonk lampooned as a “zombie-eyed granny starver.” 

The draconian cuts DeSantis voted for would have raised the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare to 70. It would have weakened Medicare by offering seniors “premium support” instead of comprehensive health coverage. And it would have eroded Social Security by giving recipients miserly annual adjustments for inflation. Taken together, the two measures would have cut these bedrock safety-net programs for seniors by more than $250 billion over a decade.

Rest assured, DeSantis will have fully disclaimed his Tea Party beliefs on entitlements by the time he announces his presidential bid. His distinguishing feature as a politician is the zeal with which he follows the lead of the GOP’s populist base; if protecting entitlements is now populist dogma, it’ll be dogma for DeSantis too. Come 2024, in other words, both of the leading Republican candidates for the nomination will staunchly support fiscal irresponsibility unto eternity. But that won’t stop Trump from using DeSantis’ prior votes in Congress against him. “If he was willing to cut your Social Security once, he’ll be willing again as president,” Trump will warn.

Which is a reasonably shrewd line of attack, even in a Republican primary. If you’re a 60-year-old conservative voter who’s intrigued by the new guy from Florida, how will you feel once you find out that he’s got a Paul Ryan streak in him—or once pretended to have a Paul Ryan streak in him, when that was what was in vogue for ambitious Republicans—on Medicare and Social Security?

For Trump, in other words, the fight over the debt ceiling is a fight to position himself and his wing of the party advantageously ahead of the 2024 primary. (And not for the first time lately.) By demanding that the party “play tough,” he scratches the base’s itch to have a big ol’ battle with Democrats, just to prove that they’re willing to take hostages. But by issuing the important caveat that entitlements are off limits, he’s put himself in a better spot to flog his one serious rival for the nomination.

If he defeats DeSantis by using DeSantis’ Tea Party votes in Congress against him, that’ll finish off any chance this country has of reforming entitlements before a mammoth debt crisis forces us to do so. No Republican will broach the idea for years to come, fearing electoral doom if they do.

Maybe we’ve reached that point already. When the Club for Growth is attacking one of the most accomplished Republican budget hawks in modern U.S. history because he doesn’t “fight,” fiscal conservatism is officially brain dead.

The irony of the coming fight is that the roles of the two wings of the House caucus have been confounded.

Because populists are less opposed in principle to bigger government, you might imagine that they’d be more willing to join Democrats in ultimately raising the debt ceiling. Because conservatives are more opposed, they’d be less willing. But no one thinks that. In reality, we expect fiscal conservatives like Nancy Mace from the “sane” wing to ultimately take a hard vote to raise the ceiling in the name of averting economic calamity while we expect populists like Matt Gaetz to resolutely oppose doing so no matter the consequences. The terms of any prospective compromise are irrelevant. “Any ransom payment that Biden considers small enough to be acceptable would by definition be considered too small for the Freedom Caucus,” Chait writes, astutely. “‘Anything acceptable to Democrats is unacceptable to us’ has been the Freedom Caucus’s animating premise for its entire existence.”

If fiscal conservatives refuse to seek the one concession that might make a dent in the debt and populists refuse to accept anything that might conceivably get them to yes on a deal then this truly is a fight about nothing, a fight for the sake of having a fight. Republicans could make it meaningful by offering concessions on tax hikes, a carrot that would suggest some degree of seriousness about deficit reduction and show good faith in meeting Democrats halfway. But neither wing of the caucus will tolerate that either. Fiscal conservatives consider the idea anathema in principle and populists will rule it out on “anything acceptable to Democrats is unacceptable to us” grounds. The House GOP is thus left in the absurd position of deeming the growing debt so urgent a problem that it’s worth risking a global economic crisis to solve it—while ruling out every fiscal tactic that might plausibly help solve it, preferring token concessions instead. 

When you send performers to Washington, don’t expect anything more than a performance, I suppose.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.