To South Carolina District, Trump’s Tough Budget Is a Promise Kept


UNION, S.C. — As Johnny Sinclair sees it, this declining mill town voted overwhelmingly to send President Trump to the White House for one overriding reason: to change rules of political engagement in Washington that had long left places like high and dry.

So when Mr. Trump released his first budget last week, proposing to significantly y shrink the footprint of federal government while building up the military, Mr. Sinclair saw a politician finally following through.

“We don’t expect Trump to get everything done he said he would. But we expect him to try,” Mr. Sinclair said Friday, as he sat in a restaurant here with four friends. “The roads may not end up paved in gold, but we expect him to be out, shovel in hand.”

In Washington, Mr. Trump’s budget has been met by many with deep, even hostile skepticism. South Carolina’s longtime Republican senior senator, Lindsey Graham, called it “dead on arrival.” Democrats’ denunciations have been even stronger.

But here, in the region that first sent Mr. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to Washington six years ago as a congressman, Mr. Sinclair’s conclusion appears to be the more common one, even if opinions differ on which programs need cutting.

“The budget reflects, in my mind, just what he said he was going to do,” said John Day, who lives about an hour away from here in the rapidly growing, decidedly more prosperous suburbs of Charlotte. Republicans and the news media ought to give Mr. Trump a chance, he said, echoing a point Mr. Mulvaney made when he unveiled the budget last week: After all, what did they expect?

The district Mr. Mulvaney represented in Congress, which has lurched rightward in recent decades, is a blend of overwhelmingly conservative suburbs, blue-collar former mill towns like Union where Mr. Trump’s populist appeal was strongest, and military communities scattered around installations at Shaw Air Force Base and nearby Fort Jackson in the region’s southernmost reaches.

Few congressional districts better capture the breadth of the unorthodox coalition that came together to elect Mr. Trump in November than this one. And though they found reasons to differ, Trump voters interviewed across the district since the budget was released Thursday seemed to embrace the document as the president’s clearest declaration yet of how he wants to reshape the federal government.

Here in Union, where thousands lost their jobs when a dozen or so textile mills closed in the 1980s and 1990s, the effects of government spending have often been hard to see. Many blame the North American Free Trade Agreement for the region’s decline, though academics disagree. No matter the cause, the void left behind has never really been filled, save perhaps by a deep suspicion of the federal government’s ability to meaningfully help.

Sitting around a table at Bantam Chef, where they regularly meet, Mr. Sinclair, 72, and his friends can still tick off the names of the shuttered operations. Government assistance that helped is harder to name, even though the city has benefited from a slew of federal grants and social programs over the years.

Mr. Sinclair worked in a mill here before spending three decades at Duke Energy. A former Democratic precinct captain and still a “card-carrying” Democrat, he voted for Mr. Trump like so many here because he was desperate to try something different.

“We haven’t gotten nothing out of the last few presidents,” he said, whether they were Republican or Democrat. Mr. Sinclair said he was not against federal programs to support things like infrastructure and education — but why not shake things up?

Phillip Lemons has watched the decline play out here for almost 20 years through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his jewelry shop on Main Street. His business has trundled along despite a 40 percent decline in sales since the 1990s, but like many here, Mr. Lemons said he had seen enough friends and family struggle to regain their footing after the textile industry collapse not to question whether some benefits on the chopping block might be best left alone.

“I think a person needs to help themselves, but there are people who have done that and you can’t just tell them we’re going to change the law and take them away,” he said.

Like Mr. Sinclair, Mr. Lemons considered Mr. Trump’s straightforward, businesslike approach a badly needed breath of fresh air. His budget, a savvy “opening salvo,” as Mr. Lemons described it, only backs up that initial assessment.

Still, Mr. Lemons had a word of caution for the president, from one businessman to another.

“I’d tell him to remember an average person,” Mr. Lemons said. “That’s something I’ve worried about from the beginning. Being so rich, how is he going to stay in touch with the average person?”

The scene could hardly have been more different in the Charlotte suburbs, where Mr. Day sat drinking a beer with his wife, Malissa, in Baxter Village, a planned community where children in ballet clothes and taekwondo robes bounced along the sidewalks on Thursday afternoon. The development sprouted up over the past two decades as Charlotte and the surrounding area emerged as a global business hub.

“I think the people need to realize that we are $20 billion in debt, and you can’t keep spending money on programs that have shown no appreciable impact,” said Mr. Day, who goes by Chip.

Other programs, like the Environmental Protection Agency, or funded areas like the arts, public news media and foreign aid, had simply grown beyond appropriate bounds, he said.

“We have so many problems here in America, so many people who legitimately need help, why wouldn’t we try our own first?” he said.

There were specific proposals — likes cuts to medical research and some programs supporting the poor — with which he did not agree, Mr. Day said, conferring with his wife. But to get hung up on them would be to miss the larger story.

“The small stuff will fall out,” Mr. Day said. “It always does.”

Two hours south, where the district’s far corner includes Shaw Air Force Base, home to the 20th Fighter Wing, families affiliated with the base and with nearby Fort Jackson hope the big stuff — a proposed $54 billion bump to the Defense Department’s budget — will not.

As he walked with his wife though a park in Sumter, not far from the base, Harold Gonzales, who flew F-16s for two decades, said he was pleased not only that Mr. Trump had made good on his campaign pledge, but that he had proposed a budget at all after five years when sequestration had determined the armed forces spending.

More money would mean upgraded equipment with new technology, more flight time for pilots at Shaw who badly need it and a better shot at retaining top military talent. Cuts to other federal expenses, he said, would simply need to be swallowed to get American defenses where they need to be to maintain standing vis-à-vis adversaries like Russia and China.

Though that, he conceded, would require more budgeting.



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