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On Medicare, Trump arrives at his 'Read My Lips' moment

As a candidate, Trump swore up and down that he'd never try to cut Medicare. With his new budget plan, he's now breaking that promise.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump turns away from the cameras as he speaks at a town hall event in Appleton, Wis., March 30, 2016.

In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush was seen by some in his party as too moderate, and he sought to assuage those concerns by vowing not to raise taxes. It became a central pillar of Bush's national campaign, and was a key element to his success as a national candidate: "Read my lips," he said. "No new taxes."

As we've discussed before, it was a promise Bush decided not to keep. The Republican, needing to cut a budget deal with a Democratic Congress, eventually agreed to some tax increases, reluctantly abandoning his pledge as part of a 1990 package. Two years later, he lost his re-election bid.

Three decades later, another Republican is in the White House, and with the unveiling of his new budget, another Republican president has arrived at a "read-my-lips" moment of his own.

There's a lot to chew on in Donald Trump's new budget blueprint, but the Washington Post highlighted one of the key takeaways.

Trump's "Budget for a Better America" also includes dozens of spending cuts and policy overhauls that frame the early stages of the debate for the 2020 election. For example, Trump for the first time calls for cutting $845 billion from Medicare, the popular health care program for the elderly that in the past he had largely said he would protect.His budget would also propose a major overhaul of Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Americans run jointly with states, by turning more power over to states. This would save $241 billion over 10 years.

We could turn our attention to the fact that Republicans spent much of the last decade falsely accusing Democrats of supporting Medicare cuts through the Affordable Care Act, only to have a GOP White House actually propose taking an ax to the social-insurance program.

We could also point out how many of us said Trump and his party, unable to pay for their massive tax breaks for the wealthy, would invariably go after Medicare and Medicaid to help finance the tax giveaways -- just as Republicans are doing now.

But as important as those details are, I'm especially interested in the scope of Trump's betrayal.

It's easy to forget, but when Trump launched his presidential candidacy nearly four years ago, he was very far to the right on issues such as race and immigration, but he went out of his way to appear moderate on many other issues, especially social-insurance programs often known as "entitlements."

As Trump argued in 2015, "I'm not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. Every other Republican's going to cut, and even if they wouldn't, they don't know what to do because they don't know where the money is. I do. I do."

It was a staple of the Republican's platform. In his campaign kick-off speech, Trump said he’d make no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. He bragged about the vow via Twitter, over and over and over again.

This promise played a key role in the inexperienced television personality’s bid to win the GOP nomination and ultimately the presidency. And yet, here we are, watching Trump, unable to pay for his tax breaks, go back on his word.

It's possible, if not likely, that Trump and his political operation will say this doesn't count as a broken promise because Congress won't actually approve the proposed Medicare cuts. It'll be a tough sell: the White House budget plan is supposed to reflect the president's vision for federal investments. It's a blueprint for how Trump would like to govern if he controlled all of the levers of power.

In other words, a budget makes plain a president's values -- and in 2019, this president values deep cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, despite all of his assurances to the contrary.

Postscript: Don't be surprised if House Democrats bring Trump's budget to the floor for a vote, just to see how many of the president's GOP allies are prepared to go on the record supporting his vision.

Update: Trump didn't just "evolve" on Medicare over the course of three years. As recently as November 2018 -- just four months ago -- the president told voters, "Democrats want to raid Medicare to find socialism. It won't last long. Republicans will protect Medicare for our great seniors who have earned it."