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From the Center

Last week, we talked about how Joe Biden had thrown a life preserver to his longtime foe Donald Trump as a result of the White House’s clumsy handling of the discovery of confidential documents in non-secured locations. The mishap seemed to have eliminated the political vulnerability of Donald Trump’s similar but not identical experience, after the trove of sensitive information with him to Mar-a-Lago when he left the presidency in early 2021 had become the focus of an FBI investigation. Now both men are facing special counsel probes and the ability of Democrats to attack Trump for his irresponsibility, despite the differences in the circumstances between the two cases, has largely disappeared.

But now Trump has returned the unintentional favor and thrown that life preserver right back to Biden. Last Friday, Trump released a two-minute video on social media in which he warned congressional Republicans not to reduce spending on Social Security and Medicare as part of this year’s budget fight. In doing so, he cut the legs out from under House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and provided Biden with an immense advantage in the upcoming negotiations.

Ever since they resolved the battle over the speakership, House Republicans have made it clear that they will only agree to raise the nation’s debt limit in exchange for significant spending reductions that they argue are necessary to reduce the historically large budget deficit. The Biden Administration has been just as adamant that the two issues will not be linked. A months-long standoff is coming, with both sides equally convinced that they have the political support to prevail in this high-stakes game of fiscal and budgetary chicken.

From the beginning, Biden and his Democratic allies have bet that once Republicans were forced to identify the programs they would cut as part of their budget proposal, voters would be so upset by those specifics that the GOP would be forced to back down. Deep divisions have already emerged among McCarthy’s troops about where the spending reductions would take place, with some arguing that defense spending should be spared the budget axe and others promising to fight for across-the-board reductions.

The vast amounts of money spent on Social Security and Medicare are a perennial point of disagreement among conservative budget cutters, and the math is unforgiving. Thirty percent of the federal budget is now consumed by those two programs, and the rapidly aging U.S. population means that those numbers will continue to grow in the years ahead. But exempting these entitlements from spending cuts means that reductions in other areas of government spending will be even more dramatic, which means the risk of voter backlash will be even greater.

By injecting himself into the middle of this intra-party fight, Trump has sent a message to the considerable portion of the GOP base that remains loyal to him that these two programs are off the table. His supporters’ opposition to these cuts will force House Republicans to either reduce defense spending, eliminate other popular domestic programs, or back down from the debt limit fight altogether. Of those three options, the latter is by far the least politically damaging.

But the pressure on McCarthy – especially from those twenty rebels who opposed his ascension earlier this month – is unyielding. Republicans may still decide that threatening the fiscal upheaval that would come from the U.S. government being unable to pay its bills is a worthwhile risk to take to force spending cuts. But at a certain point, they will need to specify in which areas of the budget that would achieve their savings. Trump just made that much more difficult for them.

This will allow Biden to push for details from the GOP with much more confidence, knowing that such a proposal will be unpopular with the swing voters he is trying to attract as he prepares for re-election. In the days since Trump’s announcement, Bide has already noticeably increased the volume of his demands for McCarthy to lay his cards on the table. The White House is much more enthusiastic about a meeting between the two men than they were a week earlier.

Biden’s re-election strategy is predicated on the idea that he can portray Republicans as irresponsible extremists while he is a sensible pragmatist. Trump-driven budget cuts – or the more likely eleventh hour GOP debt limit capitulation – will be of immense help to him as that positioning effort continues.

Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

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