Way back in 2003 I published an article in the Times magazine titled "The tax-cut con," in which I described what was already a well-established Republican strategy of bait-and-switch. First, ram through huge tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, claiming that lower taxes will actually increase revenue via the magic of supply-side economics. Then, when budget deficits soar instead, declare that the nation's dire fiscal straits demand draconian cuts in social programs.
We saw this con play out under Ronald Reagan, and again under George W. Bush. We saw it play out in Sam Brownback's Kansas. The con artists themselves have even occasionally admitted that it's a self-conscious scam, that the pretense that tax cuts pay for themselves is just an excuse for "starving the beast," creating budget deficits that force cuts in social spending.
Given how many times this con job has been tried, you might have imagined that Republicans would eventually try something different. But the tax-cut con turns out to be an unkillable, zombie political strategy, still eating our brains. (Yes, I'm on tour — currently in London — promoting my new book "Arguing with zombies.")
And sure enough, Donald Trump is giving us the same old same old. As I pointed out in today's column, back in 2016 Trump pretended to be a different kind of Republican, one who would raise taxes on the rich and protect social programs. He was lying. Aside from his trade war, his economic policies have been absolutely orthodox conservatism; and his new budget proposal, with its determination to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, is essentially indistinguishable from Paul Ryan's fiscal scams — I mean budget proposals — back in the Obama years.
All of this was obvious early in Trump's term. Even before the 2017 tax cut was passed, I predicted that it would blow up the deficit, and that Republicans would then revert to the pretense of being deficit hawks, demanding cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The only thing that has surprised me is that Republicans have made the pivot so soon; I thought they might wait until after this year's election.
The thing is, every poll I've seen says that the American public favors the positions Trump pretended to hold back in 2016. Overwhelming majorities of Americans say that corporations and the wealthy don't pay their fair share of taxes. Comparably overwhelming majorities oppose cuts in spending on major social programs.
So you might think that Trump, by unmasking himself as a standard Republican who wants to further enrich plutocrats while shredding the social safety net, has offered Democrats a ready campaign theme. But it's not clear whether Democrats are ready to seize that opportunity.
In fact, recent statements by the apparent front-runners in today's New Hampshire primary fill me with despair. Bernie Sanders still seems determined to make the election a referendum, not on Trump's attempt to destroy popular programs, but on his politically unrealistic demand that we eliminate private health insurance. And Pete Buttigieg has suddenly gone all Howard Schultz, declaring that budget deficits are a crucial issue — which is bad economics as well as bad politics.
So, a word of advice: American voters are actually center-left in their policy preferences. But they're also conservative, not in the left-right sense, but in the sense that it's much easier to sell them on preserving existing social programs than on major new initiatives. By standing against Trump's fiscal cruelty, Democrats could play to both attitudes. Will they throw this opportunity away?