In their Pledge to America, Congressional Republicans have used the old trick of promising specific tax cuts and vague spending cuts. It's the politically easy approach, and it is likely to be as bad for the budget as when George W. Bush tried it.
The sad thing is, a truly conservative approach to the deficit does exist. You can find strands of it among Republican governors, some of the party's current Congressional candidates and the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan.
Leonhardt argued, corrrectly:
The bulk of the deficit problem instead comes from three popular programs, Medicare, Social Security and the military, and they happen to be the ones the Republican pledge exempts from cuts. But it's impossible to fix the deficit without making cuts to these programs or raising taxes. To suggest otherwise is to claim that 10 minus 1 equals 5.
But Leonhardt also made his standard plea for ample government:
The essential question for any would-be budget balancer is how large the federal government should be.
For most of the last century, the government has been getting bigger. Its spending equaled about 2 percent of gross domestic product in 1900, 14 percent just after World War II and, after ballooning to almost 25 percent during the financial crisis, will fall to 23 percent in the next few years.
There is a good argument that the government should grow as societies become richer. Once people can afford the basics, they want services that the private sector often does not provide, like a strong military, good schools, generous medical care and a comfortable retirement, as Matt Miller, a McKinsey & Company consultant and former Clinton administration official, has pointed out.
To me, this pattern argues for making tax increases a big part of the deficit solution. Maybe taxes would eventually rise to 23 percent of G.D.P., rather than 19 percent, as under current policy. Spending could then be cut from the 26 percent it is scheduled to reach in 2035, yet still be high enough to afford the investments that lead to prosperity. After all, the Internet, the highway system and the biotechnology sector all began as government programs.
Mr. Ryan's budget blueprint offers an especially pointed contrast with the pledge. The Ryan plan calls for holding taxes at around 19 percent of G.D.P. and suggests specific cuts to bring spending in line. The pledge calls for even lower taxes - while offering almost no detail on spending cuts.
Which seems more credible?