WASHINGTON ― For the 31 House Democrats representing districts that President Donald Trump won in 2016, issues like impeachment and his latest unhinged tweet probably aren’t making it into the campaign stump speech.
But there’s one less-discussed topic that these Democrats think could be a massive political liability for Trump and Republicans: The president’s latest budget request.
Less than a week after he stood in the House chamber and said in his State of the Union address that he wouldn’t cut Medicare or Social Security, the president offered a budget blueprint Monday that would do both.
Specifically, Trump’s budget proposed a small trim to Social Security ― an estimated $30 billion over 10 years, by cutting assistance to some people with disabilities who get money through Social Security Disability Insurance ― and a more substantial cut to Medicare: about $500 billion over the next decade, mostly through reductions to reimbursements to doctors and hospitals.
Those are both relatively modest cuts. The administration argues the SSDI cut isn’t really a “Social Security” reduction: White House budget documents omit the disability program’s name, describing SSDI as a “federal disability program.” And the Medicare cut would be imperceptible to many older Americans because doctors and hospitals might bear the brunt of it.
But these are cuts nonetheless. And even in a highly partisan era in which news stories come and go in a matter of hours, vulnerable Democrats think Trump’s budget could have real staying power in the campaign.
“In a district like mine, Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are important and no one wants to lose their health insurance,” Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), who won his district in 2018 despite Trump winning it in 2016 by 15 points, told HuffPost Tuesday.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who won a special election in early 2018 in a district Trump carried by 20 points, told HuffPost that the budget offered “a really clear example of a place where he promised one thing in 2016, and he has in fact done the exact opposite.”
Lamb, who now sits in a safer seat thanks to redistricting but remains wary of trashing Trump, cited a tweet where the president promised not to cut Medicare or Medicaid. “And he has tried to cut those things every single year, and it’s the Democrats in Congress who stop him,” Lamb said.
Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), who also defeated an incumbent Republican in 2018, said she would talk about the budget as a way to underscore why the work Democrats do is important. “This is life and death for the American people,” Underwood said, adding that health care is still the No. 1 issue in 2020 elections.
That was a refrain HuffPost heard from many Democrats and strategists, underscoring how large of a gift Trump’s budget proposal is.
On top of breaking his promises on Medicare and Social Security, Trump’s proposal goes hard after Medicaid, the health care program designed to help low-income families and children.
The budget would cut an estimated $920 billion from Medicaid over 10 years, by tightening restrictions and federal matching funds for states that expanded the program. And the budget would cut money from other Obamacare-related programs as well, all while the Trump administration continues its efforts to strike down the Affordable Care Act in the courts.
Those issues ― not impeachment or tweets or the president’s general unfitness for office ― seem to be the things Democrats want to target in 2020, particularly in the areas where Trump won in 2016.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) told HuffPost on Tuesday that “health care is the ballgame.”
“We’ll keep talking about health care, health care, health care,” she said, while mentioning that the budget proposal is “terrible for people who just want to try and improve their lives.”
And the last DCCC Chairman ― Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), who oversaw the dramatic Democratic gains in 2018 ― had a similar message: “Every one of my colleagues on the Democratic side of the aisle should be abundantly clear when they’re going home to visit with their constituents how devastating President Donald Trump’s priorities and budget are to their families.”
Lujan said the budget was an opportunity to contrast who Trump is with who Democrats are. “Think about the success that we had as Democrats in 2018, earning back the trust of voters where it had been lost,” he said, specifically mentioning the “kitchen table issues” like health care.
A Democratic campaign strategist was a little more blunt about how this document could hurt Republicans in tough districts.
“Trump’s budget triples down on Republicans’ constant attacks on health care and puts every Republican in a god-awful spot. You think Rodney Davis, Scott Perry, or Don Bacon wants to answer for this shit?” the strategist said, mentioning three vulnerable incumbent Republicans.
“Voters know where [candidates] stand on impeachment,” this strategist said. “Those numbers have been static for months. This election is going to be about health care, so if you’re a Democrat in a swing district and you use your one minute with a voter to tell them where you stand on impeachment, you’re wasting the opportunity to connect with them on the issue that’s driving their vote.”
Vulnerable Republicans do seem to sense how damaging Trump’s budget could be for their party. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who represents a new district that is about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, had no problem criticizing the Trump budget. “I’m opposed to it. Completely opposed to it,” he said.
But Fitzpatrick didn’t think that it would weigh him down too much, because he can answer for himself. He did think, however, that the proposal is still an election issue, particularly for nonprofit organizations in districts that could be affected by the blueprint.
There was no real benefit to releasing a budget like this, other than delighting fiscal hawks at GOP think tanks — a fact that makes the proposal seem like an unforced error by the Trump administration. The ideas laid out in this document aren’t going to become law. The words “president’s budget request” and “dead on arrival” are mentioned together so much that it’s almost a joke at this point, and legislators don’t seem to have any interest in putting together a new budget this year.
Because Congress has already reached a two-year budget deal that goes through fiscal year 2021, Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) told HuffPost this week that putting together a new budget this year would be a “waste of time.”
Trump’s proposal is, then, a statement of values, as Democrats say.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is so fond of saying “Show me your budget, show me your values” that other Democrats have picked up on the adage. And even if lawmakers know this budget is going nowhere and won’t be enacted into law, the subtleties of the budget process seem to be lost on many voters.
So when Democrats talk about the president’s budget, they believe that the only thing really stopping him is a Democratic majority in the House.
As Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), another Democrat who beat an incumbent Republican in 2018, told HuffPost this week, the budget is “an indication” of what Trump “would do if he had a compliant House of Representatives, and therefore an argument we should not give him a compliant House of Representatives.”
And Malinowski, while acknowledging that a lot of this could be “in the weeds” for voters, suggested there are ways to campaign on the topic that make it more understandable.
“There are so many parts of this budget proposal that are not in the weeds. The cuts to Medicare? That’s not in the weeds. Cuts to Medicaid — which is the No. 1 source of funding for opioid treatment in New Jersey and in many other states — that’s not in the weeds,” he said. “That’s very real for people.”