“Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid,” President-elect Donald Trump warned on the campaign trail. “And we can’t do that.”
Just over a month before Trump is expected to take the oath of office, however, one of his closest allies told a conservative gathering not to worry. Referring to this specific moment in history, when Republicans are about to take control of all three branches of government, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that “this is the third great effort to break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model.”
His full speech to Heritage on Tuesday was a mix of gloating, hero worship directed at Trump, paranoia, and grievance. “Something profound is breaking in the old order… a genuine revolution is building,” Gingrich proclaimed, shortly after he credited Donald Trump for giving Americans permission to “say Merry Christmas again.”
He praised Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, because Kelly “actually talks about the end of political correctness,” then Gingrich warned of “left-wing rallies” that denounce Eagle Scouts.
He mocked claims that Ben Carson, a former surgeon who has never worked on housing policy, is unqualified to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development because Carson is “prepared to talk about morality, about discipline, about family, about the work ethic.”
Yet the thrust of the speech was that Trump has opened the door to a transformative moment where nearly a century’s worth of liberal victories can be reversed. Gingrich twice brought up the possibility of rolling back Roosevelt’s model of governance, at one point telling the conservative audience that, if Trump is succeeded by another Republican, that would establish “firmly that we have replaced the FDR model and that we are now in a period of very different government.”
So what is this “FDR model” that Gingrich finds so odious? Roosevelt took office amidst a catastrophic depression, but he also assumed power at a time when a conservative majority on the Supreme Court choked off progressive legislation, especially laws intended to protect workers. These rigid limits on governance, FDR proclaimed a month before he accepted his party’s nomination to be president, would hobble the nation’s ability to extract itself from the Great Depression.
“The country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt told the graduating class of Oglethorpe University. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”
Some of these experiments were flops. Others were smothered in the cradle by conservatives on the Supreme Court. But Roosevelt’s experiments also provided workers with a minimum wage and a right to unionize. And he signed the Social Security Act, which didn’t just provide a safety net to the aged and the unemployed, but which also laid the foundation for health legislation such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Roosevelt’s experiments brought modern liberalism into being in the United States, and they helped liberals prove that their model works.
Early signs suggest that Gingrich’s predictions that Roosevelt’s legacy could be undone should be taken seriously. Republicans in the House hope to cut Social Security benefits by 20–50 percent. Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare would drive up out-of-pocket costs for seniors by about 40 percent. Then he’d cut Medicaid by between a third and a half.
At the very least, Republicans are serious about gutting the safety net that Roosevelt began to weave in the 1930s.
Of course, Trump did say he would resist such efforts when he was a presidential candidate, but now that he is president-elect, he is stacking his cabinet nominees with Republicans broadly sympathetic to Ryan’s agenda and publicly trying to mend fences with the sitting House speaker.
Trump, in other words, appears to have pulled a bait-and-switch on his voters. He promised them a kind of racist populism, hostile to minority groups but defensive of social welfare programs that most Republican base voters hold dear. And now he appears poised to slash those programs instead.