Why you should care
Because it’s about attitude, not policy.
Donald Trump and Mick Mulvaney came to Washington under parallel political revolutions. In 2010, Mulvaney took out one of the last Southern Blue Dog Democrats as part of the tea party wave that brought Republicans to power in the House in fierce opposition to Barack Obama. In 2016, Trump rode a populist dissatisfaction with status quo politicians and unease with Hillary Clinton to a shocking electoral triumph.
Both have made it abundantly clear that they didn’t come to make friends. As a congressman from South Carolina, Mulvaney became a stalwart of the Freedom Caucus — the group of hard-right agitators who were a constant irritant to GOP leaders. Trump, of course, cares little for decorum or political norms.
United early in Trump’s presidency when the president plucked Mulvaney from Congress to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the pair has gotten along well enough that Trump announced Mulvaney as his incoming “acting” chief of staff in a surprise Friday-night tweet. This closed a week that played out like a season of The Apprentice in reverse. From onetime political wunderkind Nick Ayers to onetime presidential contender Chris Christie, candidates resisted hearing “You’re hired” from Trump for the second most powerful post in the country. Yet Mulvaney was eager to add another hat to his list of roles for the administration. (Aside from OMB, he also took a turn atop the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency he’d rather ceased to exist.)
But there’s ideological friction here, which we will see play out for as long as Mulvaney is acting in his role — and given the turnover in this White House, just about every non-family member is “acting” anyway.
An avowed small-government crusader, Mulvaney once introduced himself to then White House aide Gary Cohn thusly: “Hi. I’m a right-wing nutjob.” He told Politico that he encouraged Trump to cut Medicare and Social Security, and when the president resisted, Mulvaney got Trump to back Social Security Disability Insurance cuts. (Congress has not gone along.)
Within those conversations lies the truth about the elections of 2010 and 2016 that Trump well understands: They were about attitude, not policy. Voters weren’t dying for entitlement cuts, but rather for leaders to shake up Washington and challenge entrenched powers.
Trump didn’t run as a doctrinaire conservative, but in most respects, he has governed like one. By empowering people like Mulvaney who want to shrink the size and scope of government, Trump has helped hold his political base together. It’s why he nominated a George W. Bush guy like Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. While Trump’s foreign policy has been a notable departure, his conduct in domestic affairs isn’t much different from what a President Romney’s or a President Rubio’s might have been — a big reason why 90 percent of Republicans back him.
But Trump hasn’t gone so far to the right that he’s lost the working-class voters who like both his attitude and their Medicare. And Mulvaney has been a good soldier. As OMB chief he fought for spending bills on Capitol Hill that he would have laughed away as a congressman.
With the 2020 election brewing and Democrats having taken the House, speculation abounds about triangulation and deal-striking. But as shown in last week’s televised Oval Office sparring match with incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, not to mention accelerating developments in the various and sundry Trump investigations, Democrats are not inclined to work with Trump. With Mulvaney as the gatekeeper, the feeling is mutual.
Trump’s path to re-election requires the “forgotten men and women” who turned up in droves across Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016 to come back to the polls. As for the historically Republican suburbanites turned off by Trump’s behavior enough to vote blue this year, he’ll need to hope they are as turned off by the next Democratic nominee as they were by Clinton.
For Trump, that path likely includes a healthy sprinkling of Mulvaney’s attitude. But not his Medicare cuts.