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Updated Jan 19, 2024, 12:44pm EST
politics

Don’t sweat the details: 2024 Republicans keep budget promises vague

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks at a town hall meeting hosted by Fox News in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 8, 2024.
AFP via Getty Images/Christian Monterrosa
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The Scene

HOLLIS, N.H. – It was the $1.7 trillion question, from a voter who’d packed into a ski lodge to hear Nikki Haley. How would she balance the federal budget?

“I’m going to do exactly what I did as governor,” Haley promised. As governor, after riding the 2010 Tea Party wave, she’d slashed the state arts fund and vetoed extra money for colleges and museums, trimming a budget that, by law, had to be balanced.

In Hollis, Haley was less specific. She’d “pull down all the old programs, all the reg[ulation]s,” she said. All government spending would go “online for everybody to see,” incentivizing Congress to “move those federal programs down to the state level.” She repeated her pledge to “veto any spending bill that doesn’t take us back to pre-COVID levels,” though what might be cut to do that was unclear.

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Just days before the Jan. 23 primary, the big plans of the remaining candidates are unusually light on details. In the four years since New Hampshire’s last contest, debt held by the public has grown from $17.3 trillion to $30 trillion. Both Haley and a fading Ron DeSantis have pilloried Donald Trump for his role in that, attacking the $2.2 trillion CARES Act by name.

But there’s been little demand for specifics about spending or taxes this year. Candidates have obliged the voters, by giving as few specifics as possible.

At his first post-Iowa rally here, Trump said that he’d tackle spending by eliminating “the Green New Scam,” a reference to $400 billion of climate funding in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. He talked more about keeping his 2017 tax cuts in place. Haley has promised to claw back unspent COVID relief funds, estimated by the hawkish Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget to be $30 billion; more revenue than that would be lost by eliminating the federal gas tax, which Haley proposed in October and touts daily.

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And while she’s taken heat from rivals for proposing an increase in Gen Z’s retirement age for Social Security benefits, it’s not even clear it’s a big saver — it wouldn’t take effect for decades and would entirely bypass the Baby Boomers driving the program’s fiscal gap.

“We’re just seeing less and less detail on fiscal matters from the candidates,” said Robert Bixby, the executive director of the New Hampshire-based Concord Coalition. “They’re mostly trying to avoid addressing the issue — because if you realistically want to address it, you have to talk about a mix of spending cuts and tax increases.”

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David and Joseph's View

Tax increases were never going to be part of a Republican primary debate. Haley, Trump, and DeSantis have fought instead about Social Security, with Trump attacking Haley for wanting to raise the retirement age and Haley pointing out that Trump once favored that.

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“Do Americans a service,” Haley told reporters in Hollis after her town hall. “Talk about why he proposed a 25 cent gas tax increase. Talk about why he wanted to raise the retirement age to 70. Talk about how he grew us $8 trillion in debt in just four years. Why aren’t you talking about that?”

Trump paid no penalty for that record in Iowa’s caucuses, and isn’t getting much scrutiny from conservative media. Haley’s other tax ideas have been undefined, like a promise to “open up the middle class” by “simplifying the brackets.” In what turned out to be their final debate, last week, DeSantis endorsed a flat tax that he never detailed during the campaign (Trump and allied groups attacked him for backing related proposals in Congress).

And in Thursday night’s CNN town hall — scheduled after Haley refused to debate anyone but Trump, nixing two planned pre-primary forums — Haley said she was “for child care tax credits for everyone” after moderator Jake Tapper pointed out that her political PAC had opposed them.

Mitt Romney, who won the 2012 New Hampshire primary but lost the presidency, told Semafor that the candidates had learned caution. In that year, with well-funded conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity demanding budget cuts, he and other Republicans rallied behind ambitious budget plans and more specific spending details. Barack Obama rolled them up and turned them into a club.

“Maybe they’re smart enough to not copy what I did,” Romney joked to Semafor. In a separate interview, he told Semafor that “I think it’s hard for President Trump and a lot of other Republicans to sell fiscal austerity when during President Trump’s administration, we had a record amount of debt and massive deficits.”

Erica York, a senior economist at the Tax Foundation, said that the candidates were reflecting “the idea that tax reform has already been done.” Trump lowered taxes in 2017. Biden and other Democrats intended to let them phase out, then collect more revenue; Republicans intended to keep them, running on both low tax rates and TBD spending cuts.

“We’re seeing more along the lines of talking points than a fleshed-out campaign platform,” York told Semafor.

The prime mover in all of this, as usual: Donald Trump. He dramatically increased the GOP’s appeal to white working class voters by abandoning the debt focus; he simply promised to eliminate the debt, then did the opposite, assessing that voters didn’t care so long as the economy was growing.

He also redirected the energy of grassroots conservatives from fiscal panic to stopping illegal immigration, as seen throughout this race. Every candidate made a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border. The debt appeared only as a widget on Kentucky Rep. Tom Massie’s lapel, a prop he could point to while telling DeSantis’s shrinking crowds about how he’d tried to stop CARES from passing in the first place.

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The View From Voters

The people showing up to hear from candidates weren’t necessarily focused on taxes and spending, though there was plenty of agreement that CARES was a long-run mistake.

“I wish someone would go to every institution that they gave the CARES money to, to see exactly what they spent it on,” said Aileen Sauris, a nurse practitioner who came to see DeSantis speak in Hampton. “We should stop sending money to countries that people are coming to America from illegally unless we see accountability of where and how these funds are being used.”

Asked what might be worth cutting, to reduce overall government spending, the most popular answer was foreign aid, especially to Ukraine, which has gotten $75 billion from the United States since it was invaded by Russia. The second most popular was COVID waste; “nobody wants to work anymore,” explained Ed Topping, who was leaning toward DeSantis, and had left the construction industry before the pandemic after a back injury.

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The View From a Conservative Budget Hawk

Brian Riedl, a budget expert at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, estimated that GOP lawmakers have shielded 75% of projected future spending from cuts in their current proposals, given the bulk of it stems from Social Security, Medicare, defense programs and veterans’ benefits. He said Haley and DeSantis haven’t put forward specific proposals to shrink the deficit.

“For all their bold promises, not a single one of their deficit reduction plans would actually reduce the deficit,” Riedl wrote in an op-ed for the Dispatch.

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Notable

  • In Politico, Lisa Kashinsky and Natalie Allison see a low-energy primary unfolding in New Hampshire.
  • In Semafor, Shelby Talcott cuts through the Trump veepstakes gossip, already underway.
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