Ross Douthat: Trump knows how to make promises. Do his rivals?

Haley and Pence are offering ideas that are implausible and unpopular.

(Damon Winter | The New York Times) Former President Donald Trump on the final day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Oxon Hill, Md., March 4, 2023.

To understand the resilience of Donald Trump’s influence in the Republican Party, the way he always seems to revive despite scandal, debacle or disgrace, look no further than the contrast between his early policy forays in the 2024 campaign and what two of his prospective challengers are doing.

Judging by Trump’s address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, his policy agenda so far includes two crucial planks: first, a pledge to defend Social Security and Medicare against deficit hawks in either party, and second, a retrofuturist vision of baby bonuses and new “freedom cities” rising in the American hinterland, with building projects following classical rather than ugly modern-architecture lines.

Meanwhile, two of his challengers, the definitely running Nikki Haley and the hoping-to-run Mike Pence, have made headlines this year for floating entitlement cuts: Haley for her proposal this past week to change the retirement age for today’s twentysomethings, and Pence for bringing back the idea of private Social Security accounts, of the kind that George W. Bush proposed in 2005.

Trump’s insouciance about the cost of entitlements is irresponsible, needless to say, and after four years of experience with his leadership we can imagine what the freedom city policy would yield — a Trump casino and some mixed-used buildings run by Jared Kushner rising off an unfinished spur of highway somewhere in the vacant portions of the American West, funded by hard-sell fundraising appeals to vulnerable seniors. And of course in the CPAC speech Trumpian policy was a minor theme amid the dominant motifs of rambling self-pity and threats of retribution.

But one can acknowledge all that and still see that once again he’s offering GOP primary voters an alternative to the pinched style, stale ideas and phony fiscal seriousness of the pre-Trump — and now, it would seem, post-Trump — Republican Party.

A real fiscal seriousness would be defensible with inflation running hot. But Haley’s idea of cutting benefits for Americans retiring in 2065 is largely irrelevant to those immediate considerations. Pence’s revival of the private account proposal, meanwhile, is hopelessly out of touch with both fiscal and political reality. As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru notes, the Bush-era private accounts plan depended on using surplus funds to smooth the transition, but now that the boomers are into retirement, the window for that kind of maneuver has been closed.

So if Trump is being irresponsible and implausible in order to pander to his voters, Haley and Pence are doing something weirder and more self-defeating: They’re offering ideas that are implausible and unpopular, whose only virtue is that they sound vaguely serious if you don’t think too hard about the details. “Neither popular nor right” might as well be their motto, one that doubles as the epitaph for the kind of right-wing politics that Trump’s 2016 campaign overthrew.

The reality is that there are only two ways to address the ballooning costs of Social Security and Medicare and their crowding-out of other national priorities. One is to negotiate deals that supply bipartisan cover for reform — either working at the margins via the so-called Secret Congress, the out-of-the-headline deal making that’s become more commonplace of late, or seeking the kind of grand bargain that eluded John Boehner and Barack Obama.

But no Republican primary candidate these days is going to campaign on making deals, small or large, with Joe Biden or Chuck Schumer, so this kind of scenario is more or less irrelevant to a presidential campaign. The only scenario that could possibly be relevant, for a skillful communicator with some sense of civic duty, would be to frame an entitlement reform as a kind of intergenerational transfer, a rebalancing of accounts in a society too tilted toward old-age spending. To use the example of Trump’s big ideas, such a framing might reassure voters in youth and middle age that they would be receiving slightly lower benefits at retirement so that more things could be done right now, like baby bonuses for young families and cheaper real estate in sparkling new cities.

But that’s a hard imaginative leap for a certain kind of Republican politician, trained in the idea that making actual policy promises to persuadable voters is what Democrats and socialists do, and the point of cutting Social Security and Medicare is either fiscal virtue for its own sake or else to free space for the lowest possible upper-bracket tax rate.

Whereas whatever one might say about Trump’s follow-through, he has never had any trouble making attractive-seeming promises to voters (or to investors or municipal officials, for that matter).

So the question for his would-be rivals, and especially for Ron DeSantis as he waits, watches and prepares, is whether they can learn enough from this style to finally overcome it, or whether they’ll offer so little to voters that Trump’s promises will still sound sweet.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.