A Debt-Free State of the Union

The most important words in Obama's speech, and in the Republican responses, were the ones hardly uttered at all.

Susan Walsh/AP

Want to understand why President Obama sounded so exuberant last night and the Republicans who responded to him sounded so cautious? The answer lies in the sudden disappearance of two all-important words from America’s political lexicon: deficit and debt.

In 2011, facing a newly elected Republican Congress, Obama uttered those words 12 times. They drained the life out of his State of the Union address. When a Democratic president proposes “freez[ing] annual domestic spending for the next five years” and requiring “painful cuts … to things I care deeply about,” he’s unlikely to exude vitality. It’s hard to explain how government can help Americans live out their dreams when you’ve conceded that the government is broke.

The Republican who responded to Obama that year was a little-known Wisconsin representative named Paul Ryan. He used the words “deficit” and “debt” 14 times. And they provided his ideological fuel. Declaring that, “Our nation is approaching a tipping point … Just look at what’s happening to Greece,” Ryan warned that debt was destroying not merely America’s solvency but its soul. Without dramatic cuts to government spending, the United States faced “a future in which we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” If debt prevented Obama from making the case for activist government, it served as Ryan’s evidence that activist government was morally sick.

Compare that to last night. Obama only mentioned “deficits” to crow that they were going down. He only mentioned “debt” while talking about student loans. And he didn’t mention spending cuts at all.

Even more striking was the Republican response. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, representing another newly empowered GOP congressional majority, did not mention debt or deficits once. And denied this tangible evidence of the unsustainability and depravity of big government, she made no real effort to challenge Obama’s speech on ideological grounds. Her sole swipe at excessive government—“we’ll propose ideas that aim to cut wasteful spending and balance the budget, with meaningful reforms, not higher taxes like the president has proposed”—lasted all of one sentence. Then she moved onto cyber-terrorism.

We’ve been here before. In the late 1990s, when economic growth and spending cuts erased the deficits of the early Clinton years, Republicans also found it harder to demonize government. As they approached the 2000 campaign, different GOP candidates found different substitutes for the anti-deficit fervor that had powered the Republican Revolution of 1994. Steve Forbes proposed big tax cuts on theory that if government had money to spare, it should send it back to the people. Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes focused on liberal moral degeneracy, using Bill Clinton as Exhibit A. John McCain argued for a heroic “national greatness” foreign policy. George W. Bush peddled a “compassionate conservatism” that used government to help the poor, but demanded more responsibility on their part. When Bush won the nomination, he incorporated elements of all of these themes into his campaign.

If you look closely at the current crop of Republican candidates, you can see the beginnings of a similar fracturing of the GOP message. Mike Huckabee looks determined to run on cultural decline. Jeb Bush and even Mitt Romney want to focus on using government to help the poor. Every potential candidate except Rand Paul will likely promise defense hikes and a more aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. And every potential GOP candidate, including Rand Paul, will likely unveil a big tax cut, probably unmatched by real reductions in spending.

When it comes to winning presidential elections, diminished ideological fervor can actually be an advantage. The government dependency argument that Ryan trotted out in 2011 worked out poorly for Mitt Romney in 2012. Joni Ernst, by contrast, devoted much of her State of the Union address to personal, non-ideological stories about her hardscrabble farm-girl upbringing, and came across as appealing and non-threatening.

The lesson of last night’s State of the Union is that in both parties, the terms of the domestic policy debate have shifted left. As we approach 2016, Republicans will have to contend with a country that knows it really isn’t Greece.