What will happen if the blue wave in the midterm elections falls short? Clearly, at this point it still might: Democrats will surely receive more votes than Republicans, but thanks to gerrymandering and population geography, the U.S. electoral system gives excess weight to rural, white voters who still have faith in President Trump. What if, thanks to that excess weight, the minority prevails?
One answer, obviously, is that the unindicted co-conspirator in chief will continue to be protected from the law. And for those concerned with the survival of American democracy, that has to be the most important issue at stake in November. But if the G.O.P. hangs on, there will also be other, bread-and-butter consequences for ordinary Americans.
First of all, there is every reason to believe that a Republican Congress, freed from the immediate threat of elections, would do what it narrowly failed to do last year, and repeal the Affordable Care Act. This would cause tens of millions of Americans to lose health insurance and would in particular hit those with pre-existing conditions. There’s a reason health care, not Trump, is the central theme of Democratic campaigns this year.
But the attack on the social safety net probably wouldn’t stop with a rollback of Obama-era expansion: Longstanding programs, very much including Social Security and Medicare, would also be on the chopping block. Who says so? Republicans themselves.
In a recent interview with CNBC’s John Harwood, Representative Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee — in effect, the man charged with containing the blue wave — declared that, given the size of the budget deficit, the federal government needs to save money by cutting spending on social programs. When pressed about whether that included Social Security and Medicare, he admitted that it did.
And he’s not alone in seeing major cuts in core programs for older Americans as the next step if Republicans win in November. Many major figures in the G.O.P., including the departing speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, and multiple senators, have said the same thing. (Meanwhile, groups tied to Ryan have been running attack ads accusing Democrats of planning to cut Medicare funding — but hey, consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. So, apparently, is honesty.)
So it might seem shocking that only a few months later they’re once again posing as deficit hawks and calling for spending cuts. That is, it might seem shocking if it weren’t for the fact that this has been the G.O.P.’s budget strategy for decades. First, cut taxes. Then, bemoan the deficit created by those tax cuts and demand cuts in social spending. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This strategy, known as “starve the beast,” has been around since the 1970s, when Republican economists like Alan Greenspan and Milton Friedman began declaring that the role of tax cuts in worsening budget deficits was a feature, not a bug. As Greenspan openly put it in 1978, the goal was to rein in spending with tax cuts that reduce revenue, then “trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.”
It’s true that when tax cuts are on the table their proponents tend to deny that they’ll increase the deficit, claiming that they’ll provide a miraculous boost to the economy and that tax receipts will actually rise. But there’s not a shred of evidence to support this claim, and it has never been clear whether anyone with real political power has ever believed it. For the most part it’s just a smoke screen to help conceal the G.O.P.’s true intentions.
The puzzle is why Republicans keep getting away with this bait-and-switch.
Fifteen years ago I wrote a long piece titled “The Tax-Cut Con,” describing what was even then a time-honored scam; it reads almost word for word as a description of Republican strategy in 2017-18. Yet I keep reading news analyses expressing puzzlement that men who were strident deficit hawks in the Obama years so cheerfully signed on to a budget-busting tax cut under Trump. To say the obvious: These men were never deficit hawks; it was always a pose.
And the gullibility both of the news media and self-proclaimed centrists remains a remarkable story. Remember, Ryan, who was utterly orthodox in his determination to cut taxes on the rich while savaging programs for the poor and the middle class, even received an award for fiscal responsibility.
Which brings us back to the midterm elections. Rule of law is definitely on the ballot. So is health care. But voters should realize that the threat to programs they count on is much broader: If the G.O.P. holds its majority, Social Security and Medicare as we know them will be very much in danger.