One of the things that bothered me in the run-up to this shocking election night was the general feeling that even if Republicans won Congress, President Hillary Clinton would stop them from wreaking havoc just like President Obama did — and that if Donald Trump somehow became president, Congress would stop him from doing much harm, at least on the legislative front.
That last assumption is probably dead wrong. With Trump in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress — the condition that will prevail in January, based on the results of Tuesday’s election — Republicans are now in a position to work a revolution in domestic policy. It will likely be at least as dramatic as anything we’ve seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office, and perhaps since LBJ and congressional Democrats enacted the Great Society legislation that is now in peril.
For all the talk of “feuding” or even “civil war” between Trump and congressional Republican leaders, they are actually on the same page on a lot of very radical ideas. These include, of course, the linchpin of Republican domestic policy: a big upper-end tax cut rationalized by the imaginary economic boom it will be advertised to create. Beyond that, however, there is a big increase in defense spending that both Trump and congressional Republicans have promised, and then the decimation of the low-income safety net. Every analysis of Paul Ryan’s various budget proposals — quite likely the building block of what Republicans will try to enact — indicates savage consequences for poor people. Think the expanded Medicaid coverage created by Obamacare will survive? Hah! The bigger question is whether Medicaid itself survives, since both Trump’s platform and the Ryan budget would dump the program on the tender mercies of the states through a block grant sure to bleed funding regularly.
But wait: Isn’t Trump opposed to “entitlement reform,” and isn’t that what the Ryan budget is about? Actually, Trump is opposed to Social Security benefit cuts. Republicans in Congress haven’t seriously talked about messing with Social Security since George W. Bush’s disastrous partial-privatization effort in 2005. And as much as Republicans would like to privatize Medicare benefits, their base is far too old to countenance significant Medicare cuts without Democratic “cover,” which is precisely why “entitlement reform” was so central to every Republican “deal” offered to Barack Obama.
So that is why Trump and congressional Republicans should be able to cheerfully, even gleefully, agree to pay for their tax cuts and their Pentagon spending from programs that benefit not their base, but that of the hated Democrats. And Ryan’s already basically written it all up, repeatedly.
But speed and quick marginalization of those hated opponents will be essential. That is why, as Paul Ryan told us all in early October, he has long planned to use the budget reconciliation process — where there is no filibuster available in the Senate — to enact his entire budget in one bill. Again, a bill that cannot be filibustered. He referred to it, appropriately, as a bazooka in his pocket. And while there are some things you cannot do in a reconciliation bill, there aren’t many of them: Congressional Republicans did a trial run last year (nobody paid much attention, because they knew Barack Obama would veto it), and it aimed at crippling Obamacare, defunding Planned Parenthood, and disabling regulators, in addition to the nasty surprises for poor people mentioned above.
As my colleague Jonathan Chait has explained, Senate Republicans are almost certain to move (as would Democrats in the same situation) to complete the demolition of the filibuster Harry Reid began in 2013 when he eliminated the obstructionist procedure for executive and judicial (other than the Supreme Court) confirmation votes.
So is there anything that could stand in the way of this Un-Great Society blitz? Well, sure: the unpredictability of Donald Trump. Presumably when the celebrations and the theater of a Trump Triumphant subsides, he will sit down with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to cut a deal. What they will want is his signature on that reconciliation bill. What he will want beyond the things in that bill that he and his supporters want, too, is unclear. But what is clear is that if he gives the GOP, in one stroke of the pen, the counterrevolution they have dreamed of for so long, the GOP will give its unlikely president extraordinary freedom to work his will on the world via diplomacy and executive actions.
There is a consolation prize for Democrats, albeit not one that will provide much immediate comfort: With Donald Trump in the White House, they may finally win a midterm election again. They might as well get started on it, because in Washington they will likely be roadkill on the GOP’s drive to bring back the 1950s.