An Open Letter to Conservatives Who Care About the Deficit: Wake Up!

Before getting swept up in Romney-Ryan mania, scrutinize their promises. Even if kept, they won't balance the budget.

During the Bush years, the conservative movement enthusiastically supported the president until late in his second term, when fiscal conservatives started raising their voices. Their protests and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party were supposed to signal a change. Everywhere, folks on the right talked about the urgency of addressing present and projected deficits. Rep. Paul Ryan rose to prominence partly because he proposed a way forward. And conservative publications that worry about the deficit are all backing Team Romney-Ryan, arguing in part that righting America's fiscal ship is a moral and practical necessity.

I agree with deficit hawks that their issue ought to be a high priority.

But after watching the Republican National Convention in Tampa, I still don't understand why the deficit hawks think the GOP will come through for them. This subject often devolves into an argument about the trustworthiness of Paul Ryan, with detractors citing his budget-busting votes during the Bush era, which happens to have encompassed the vast majority of his career. For the sake of argument, say he really does deeply regret those votes, and presume as accurate the most persuasive defense of his current actions, offered here, here, and here by Ross Douthat.

It remains the case that the Romney-Ryan ticket, as fleshed out in recent days, is running on the following:

  • Zero cuts to the military budget. "If I'm president and Paul Ryan's vice president we will not cut our military budget," Mitt Romney said. He's also talked repeatedly about increasing defense spending.  
  • Zero tax increases on investment, savings, or the middle class, and a broad income-tax rate cut.
  • Zero cuts to Medicare for the entirety of two terms in office.
  • War with Iran if it keeps pursuing a nuclear program. 

What about those policy promises suggests to deficit hawks that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will shrink the deficit? Meanwhile, the GOP ticket promises to eliminate tax deductions but won't specify which ones. Naturally, the deductions that cost the most are correspondingly popular with voters. How is it that deficit hawks fail to appreciate the fact that the most likely parts of the Romney-Ryan agenda to pass are the tax cuts, increases in military spending, and the restoration of $700 billion plus to Medicare, while the least likely to pass are the elimination of tax deductions?

Then there's Ryan's long term vision. Says Kevin Drum, if we presume no substantial cuts to defense spending, by 2050 it would entail "a cut of 80 percent or so" that affects almost everything save Social Security and Medicare. "It affects prisons, food assistance, education, the FBI, assistance to the needy, courts, child nutrition, drug-abuse counseling, FEMA, rape prevention, autism programs, housing, border control, student loans, roads and bridges, Head Start, college scholarships, unemployment insurance, and job training," he writes. Does that seem even remotely realistic politically, even to the few people who think that it would be desirable?

As best as I can tell, a lot of deficit hawks are refraining from demanding a realistic path to a balanced budget because they assume Romney-Ryan will be better than Obama, and figure that more specificity is only going to hurt their ability to win the upcoming election. Isn't that tantamount to putting the same blind faith in the GOP that its partisans identified as a root cause of the Bush-era spending spree, and which they promised to never indulge again?

I realize that some on the right only pretend to care about the deficit to keep the coalition together. But the many earnest fiscal conservatives are in for a rude awakening if Romney and Ryan win. After a convention where the Tea Party went virtually unmentioned, foreign policy hawks got prominent speaking rolls, and talk of entitlements mostly revolved around restoring cuts to a Great Society program, the next GOP administration is shaping up to look a lot like the last one. And the conservative media infrastructure remains too much in the tank for the GOP to notice.

Wake up, fiscal conservatives!