Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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There will be a reckoning

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In offering a budget proposal designed to shrink the federal government, President Trump is, to some ways of thinking, on the side of the angels. We cannot afford the government we have.

But the angels won’t fly him to victory; he must make his case.

The President proposes to cut $54 billion from other departments to give to the Pentagon. That means defunding some programs entirely and significantly trimming others.

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It’s easy to argue for cutting the federal budget in general. But the money must come from somewhere. If the military is to get more, either taxes must be raised, the deficit must be increased, or other parts of the budget must be cut. Raising taxes means taking even more money from hardworking Americans. And increasing the deficit — the amount that must be borrowed — means forcing future generations to pay. That leaves cuts.

But the budget can’t be cut in general; cuts have to come from specific programs. And specific programs have defenders. Threaten to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — as President Trump proposes, as Republicans in past Congresses have proposed — and legions will rally to defend Big Bird. Call for defunding the National Endowment for the Arts — as this budget does — and people will rise to the defense of modern art.

The President, or a top aide, needs to plead his case and explain his rationale. He has yet to do so for the size of the military buildup he wants. He has merely asserted that such a buildup is self-evidently good.

The Trump Administration also needs to explain its choices. Is eliminating foreign aid a policy choice or a knee-jerk reaction?

But, the President will force Americans — as budget cutting does — to reckon with our priorities and values: What are we willing to pay for the things that matter to us? And which things really matter?

Trump critics also need to make distinctions and choose their battles. Much of what only PBS did well 25 years ago is now done, and perhaps done better, by cable and Internet TV. But the Great Lakes are irreplaceable, and if we lose Lake Erie, we cannot create a cheap, ersatz replacement. Most Americans would pay more taxes to save our national parks or the Great Lakes. Few care deeply about public television.

Mr. Trump is forcing us to answer: Where would you cut?

Meanwhile, the cuts he is proposing hit the Brexit states of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan with disproportionate force. That may bring a reckoning on Mr. Trump’s side of the equation.

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