WASHINGTON ― After years of berating Democrats over deficits and debt during Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans have put fiscal conservatism on the back burner. In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Donald Trump didn’t even use the word “debt” ― a striking omission for the leader of a party that until very recently opposed just about any new spending that wasn’t revenue-neutral or offset by cuts elsewhere.
The only mention of the word “deficit” in Trump’s speech referred to the lack of investment in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, which he called on lawmakers to fix by passing an eye-popping $1.5 trillion bill. He did not, however, lay out how he would pay for the legislation.
Trump also raised eyebrows by urging lawmakers to “support working families by supporting paid family leave,” which is one of his older daughter’s top priorities. The U.S. is one of a handful of countries around the world that does not mandate paid family leave. Republicans consistently opposed legislation requiring employers to provide paid family leave during Obama’s tenure.
“This infrastructure proposal plus a new family leave entitlement are reminders that — on fiscal conservatism — the GOP is unrecognizable: not what conservatives stood for and ran on in 2010, 2012 & 2014. This new direction is fiscally unsustainable,” tweeted Dan Senor, a former adviser to both Mitt Romney and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
That penny-pinching may no longer be a top priority for the GOP was also evident in lawmakers’ reactions to Trump’s speech. Republicans enthusiastically cheered the many applause lines. Afterward, House Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and others gushed to reporters that it may have been the “best” State of the Union address they’d ever heard.
The tendency among GOP politicians to overlook deficits and debt during Republican administrations is nothing new, however. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans passed two tax cuts, launched two wars, and passed a budget-busting Medicare Part D program ― all on the national credit card.
“It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led,” Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, admitted last year. “It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”
The trend is evident in public polling as well. Since 2013, the height of the tea party movement, the share of Republican voters who say cutting the deficit ought to be a top priority has fallen more than 20 points, from 81 percent to 59 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
FreedomWorks, an influential conservative think tank that advocates for fiscal restraint and smaller government, saw many good things in Trump’s speech but added it would have liked to hear more about the budget deficit.
“With the national debt now more than $20 trillion, and only projected to grow as America returns to $1 trillion budget deficits in only a few years, we need to begin to have a serious discussion about entitlement reform,” FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon said in a statement Tuesday. “This is an area where President Trump can provide leadership.”