President Trump came close to setting a record for the longest State of the Union address Tuesday night, taking one hour and 20 minutes to say 6,000 words. But it may have been what he didn’t say that spoke the loudest about his priorities and how much he has fundamentally changed the Republican Party in his 12 months as president.
In a break with GOP orthodoxy, he did not talk about the budget deficit; he did not talk about the national debt; he did not talk about restraining spending. The only time he used the word “deficit” was a reference to an “infrastructure deficit.” The only time he used the word “spending” was a reference to a border agent “spending the last 15 years” fighting gangs.
Those absences make this speech an historic outlier, leaving Trump badly out of step with his adopted party’s long fealty to fiscal discipline and with his Republican predecessors in the Oval Office. The last president not to mention the deficit and spending in a State of the Union address was Richard Nixon in 1974. In the 36 State of the Union addresses between Nixon and Trump—given by three Democratic presidents and four Republican presidents—the deficit was a fixture of every speech.
Nixon could be excused. He was more worried in 1974 about the Watergate investigation and the energy crisis. The budget deficit, at a tiny $6.1 billion that year, was barely worth mentioning. The same cannot be said about the situation facing Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress in 2018. The deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 is projected by the Office of Management and Budget at $666 billion. Stan Collender, executive vice president of Qorvis MSL Group and a leading budget analyst, sees deficits topping $1 trillion in the years to come.
There were four consecutive years of $1 trillion-plus deficits from 2009 to 2012 because of the temporary spending done to combat the Great Recession of 2008. The coming deficits are different because they are a result of more permanent tax cuts and spending programs championed by Trump. That includes spending on the military, border security, disaster relief, and an end to the federal subsidies for the Affordable Care Act, which increases the deficit by $19 billion a year.
It should not be surprising that Trump cares little about the deficit. In his campaign, he boasted, “I’m the king of debt. I’m great with debt. Nobody knows debt better than me.” He also pledged not to balance the budget by reforming entitlements. He never pretended to be a deficit hawk.
More surprising is the disappearance of the deficit hawks in Congress who squawked loudest when President Obama was in office. Part of the explanation is simple politics, as GOP Rep. Mark Walker sheepishly acknowledged to The New York Times in September. “It’s a great talking point when you have an administration that’s Democrat-led,” said Walker, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House members. “It’s a little different now that Republicans have both houses and the administration.”
A bigger part of the explanation may be that Trump, through sheer force of personality, his trademark bluster ,and the powers of his office, has already moved the Republican Party far from its traditional fiscal moorings. An early sign was the watering down of the GOP platform’s plank on spending. In 2012, the platform warned of a “debt explosion” and pledged “immediate reductions in federal spending.” In 2016, that became a pledge to “prioritize thrift over extravagance.”
The changed mindset of the party was clear in the wake of the State of the Union address. The lone conservative voice sounding an alarm was commentator Stephen F. Hayes in The Weekly Standard, who lamented that “nobody seems to care.” Among those silent about the deficit’s absence from the speech were longtime deficit hawks Jenny Beth Martin, president of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, and Steve Forbes, chairman of Forbes Media. Instead, they gushed about the tax cuts.
In his 1983 State of the Union address, President Reagan warned that deficits were “an unconscionable burden of national debt for our children.” In 1988, Reagan mocked those who said deficits “would make us prosperous and not to worry about the debt, because we owe it to ourselves.” In his 1975 State of the Union address, President Ford argued that opposing deficits “is a question of simple arithmetic.” Forty-three years later, a new Republican president and a Republican Congress have adopted new math and the political equation is no longer quite so simple.