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Widening Conservatives’ Vision

Matt Continetti makes an extraordinarily smart point about conservatives’ agenda:

Numbercrunching is a valuable skill, but it also has a tendency to crimp the political imagination. So Republicans must be careful as they trim expenses. Otherwise they’ll fall into the austerity trap.

In the austerity trap, Republican congressmen get so outraged over earmarks to fund studies of the mating patterns of red-bellied newts, they neglect legislation that would foster long-term growth. Deficit anxiety causes conservative lawmakers to rule out sensible policies like a payroll tax cut. A myopic focus on government spending causes Republican leaders to short-change the defense budget and renege on America’s global responsibilities. The entitlement nightmare frightens GOP candidates into framing their economic agenda in strictly negative terms.

To a degree, we have already seen this in the preliminary rounds of the 2012 campaign. As Michael Barone points out, Mitch Daniels is gaining visibility as a sober-minded skinflint. No one has a better command of numbers or can come up with more creative ways of taming entitlements. But he also exhibits the danger signs that Matt enumerates. When I asked Daniels about foreign policy, it was apparent that he regarded this as a line item. He cautioned that we need to prune defense spending and also that we the need to cut back on our overseas commitments. (Which ones?)

Matt suggests one way to avoid the “austerity trap”: “The best place to combine fiscal rectitude and pro-growth economics is the tax code. After repealing Obama-care, the second agenda item for the new GOP Congress is extending current tax rates. Then, go for tax reform.”

And there is something else that is needed: a positive message centered on faith in the common man, love of liberty, and restoration of America’s greatness. Americans may be overdosed on charisma and lofty messages, you say. But perhaps it’s just substanceless rhetoric that has worn out its welcome. Conservatism needs both the notes and the melody — smart policies combined with a reminder that the rationale for limited government isn’t found in accounting manuals, but in the Preamble to the Constitution.