When George W. Bush ran for president in the late 1990s, he did it on a platform of “compassionate conservatism,” a smooth-edged rebranding of the conservatism that had become synonymous with callousness in the age of Newt Gingrich. Bush’s compassionate conservatism assured voters that he wasn’t going to waste their money the way he said Democrats would, but that he also wasn’t going to hurt people in the process, especially the least among us.
Bush won, but the concept of conservatism took a beating under his administration, as federal budgets ballooned and his vision of the role of government expanded at home and abroad.
Fast forward to Tuesday, when OMB Director Mick Mulvaney laid out the first Republican budget in nine years, and Mulvaney, the former Indian Land congressman, not only dumped the concept of compassionate conservatism, he literally redefined what compassion should mean in today’s Washington.
“Compassion has to be on both sides of the equation,” Mulvaney explained to reporters at the White House. “Yes, you have to have compassion for the people receiving federal funds, but you also have to have compassion for the folks who are paying it and that is one of the things that is new about this president’s budget.”
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So far, so good. As a taxpayer, I think I speak for all of us when I say we don’t want our money wasted, lost or stolen. Why else would every politician in history promise to reduce the deficit by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse?
But Mulvaney went on to describe what compassion in Donald Trump’s America will look like: Major funding boosts for programs that Trump promised on the campaign trail; huge cuts to safety net programs that neither Mulvaney nor Trump seem to understand very well; and a gigantic corporate and personal tax cut that most economists say will blow a hole in the federal budget, but that Mulvaney insists will boost the economy to 3 percent annual growth and somehow balance the budget in 10 years.
Of the programs that will get funding increases under Mulvaney’s new definition of compassion are $1.6 billion for Trump’s border wall, a $54 billion annual increase in military and defense spending, and significant plus-ups for law enforcement, veterans programs, paid parental leave, and school choice, namely taxpayer funding for charter and private schools. “They are all campaign promises the president made while he was running for office,” Mulvaney explained Tuesday.
On the block for historic cuts are Medicaid, which would be slashed by more than $800 billion, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, which would see a 29 percent cut, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which would be cut by 19 percent, and an array of foreign assistance and medical research programs.
Again and again, Mulvaney described the safety net programs that millions of low income Americans rely on as rife with fraud and hucksters. “We have plenty of money in this country to take care of the people who need help. And we will do that,” he said. “We don’t have enough money to take care of people who don’t need help.”
But for a set of programs judged to be so newly un-compassionate, Mulvaney didn’t seem to know much about them. When a reporter asked about the dozens of programs already in place to address fraud, Mulvaney said that was a good question. When he was asked about work requirements that the budget will phase in for food assistance, he said he didn’t know the details.
He described the real problem with welfare as “the folks who are out there who don’t want to work,” but he didn’t mention that 32 percent of people on food stamps have jobs and are still living so near the poverty line, they still rely on SNAP, according to the Agriculture Department’s own numbers.
What Mulvaney never addressed is the effect all of this would have on state budgets, 31 of which are run by Republican governors, and nearly all of which would have their budgets obliterated by the cost-shifting that the Trump budget achieves. For every dollar that the Trump budget cuts in Medicaid for safety net and rural hospitals, for example, it will fall to states to pay for or begin to close those hospitals.
Mulvaney also never talked about the effect this will have on parents and families, some of whom will not be able to pay for their children’s health insurance or put food on the table without the federal programs that support them. Those families may thrive under the pressure, or they may crumble, but this budget says it’s a risk worth taking.
Those are the values and priorities in Donald Trump’s first budget as president. They may be exactly what his supporters voted for, and they may end up being the jolt the American economy needs to return to steady, upward growth. But this budget is not compassionate. To say otherwise is just dishonest.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast.