The last couple of days have offered what could be considered standard political fare for presidential cycles. One candidate vying for the presidential nomination blasted a Republican governor for not raising taxes and instead creating a confrontation with labor unions and their Democratic Party allies.
The same candidate then declared that the federal government should run both education and healthcare in the US, putting those priorities on par with national security for Washington DC. That’s the same kind of political patter that Democrats vying for the presidency typically offer every four years.
This time, though, the candidate isn’t running for the Democratic Party nomination. He’s the frontrunner for the top of the Republican Party ticket. Just when movement conservatives felt that the cognitive dissonance produced in this cycle could not possibly run any deeper, Donald Trump has managed to blow minds yet again.
During a CNN Town Hall Forum, broadcast live on Tuesday evening, an audience member asked Trump, “What are the top three functions of the United States government?” After asking for the question to be repeated, Trump responded, “Well, the greatest function of all by far is security for our nation,” a sentiment shared by conservatives, Republicans, and no small numbers of independents and Democrats as well.
Conservatives have made that argument as a reminder of how the Constitution sets limits on the reach of the federal government. Trump has relied on this priority in defense of his proposals to deport 12 million illegal immigrants and to block Muslims from entering the US.
However, Trump’s answer did not stop there. “I would also say health care, I would also say education,” he finished, while emphasizing that security came first. Anderson Cooper, moderating the forum, didn’t quite believe he’d heard Trump correctly. “So in terms of the federal government’s role,” Cooper asked, “you're saying security, but you also say health care and education should be provided by the federal government?”
“Well, those are two of the things,” Trump replied. “There are obviously many things, housing, providing great neighborhoods.”
This obviously reverses not just the last seven years of opposition to Obamacare, but four decades of Republican Party opposition to federalized health care and the Department of Education since Ronald Reagan became its leader in 1980. In fact, Reagan had recorded a speech almost twenty years earlier opposing federal control of health care in any context -- a speech that helped put Reagan on track to become a leader of the conservative movement and eventually the Republican Party.
Reagan won the 1980 election while pledging to abolish the newly established Department of Education , but he threw in the towel in 1983 under heavy political pressure. He opted instead to use the agency to “pursue excellence,” a goal that movement conservatives pointedly note has gone unmet, despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars ever since.
One might explain Trump’s reaction to the question as a statement more of fact than of philosophy. The federal government now does control the health insurance markets, and also controls education. Neither may be optimal – Trump almost immediately said he backed state control over such matters – but that they need to be run better wherever control is located. However, even Trump’s supporters will have trouble squaring that approach with the frontrunner’s attack on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his refusal to raise taxes.
Walker endorsed Ted Cruz this week, citing his record as a “consistent conservative.” In response, Trump blasted Walker for ignoring a $2.2 billion deficit for his own political gain, and then refusing to raise taxes to cover the shortfall. “There’s a $2.2 billion deficit and the schools were going begging and everything was going begging because he didn’t want to raise taxes ’cause he was going to run for president,” Trump told radio host Michael Koolidge. “So instead of raising taxes, he cut back on schools, he cut back on highways, he cut back on a lot of things.”
Trump made this same argument in the summer, when Walker was still in the race for the GOP nomination. It was false then, and it’s still false to this day, as Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted again this week. There was never a $2.2 billion deficit in Wisconsin, or any deficit; there was a projection that the budget under debate at the time would generate a deficit, but an earlier projection showed a surplus, too. Walker had signed a balanced biennial budget before Trump made the initial allegation, and it’s still balanced now – without raising taxes.
Normally, Republicans would cheer when government doesn’t dip its hands further into the pockets of taxpayers. Normally, Republican voters would insist that its presidential candidates pledge to follow that same line Walker took in dealing with budget issues – to work within the present level of revenues. Clearly, Donald Trump is not a normal Republican, on many levels.
Just as clearly, though, Republicans and conservatives have to ask themselves whether the Republican Party stands for conservative policies and principles, or whether they want to simply emulate Democrats in order to win elections. Donald Trump seems set on pursuing the latter strategy, attacking a successful conservative and Republican governor for his adherence to conservative principles while embracing the same priorities on federal authority one would expect from the other side of the ticket. Is that who best represents Republicans and conservatives – the man calling for tax hikes and federal control of health care and education?
This question of identity will be the most important query for voters to consider through the rest of the primaries and into the convention. While this soul-searching process continues, bear this in mind: when presented with a choice between a real Democrat and a phony Democrat, voters will choose the former every time.