In Budget Wars, Tough Talk Hasn't Often Led to Political Victory

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Is it really different this time?

That’s what Republican political strategists are asking as party leaders and presidential prospects keep raising the bar in their quest to curb government deficits. As thrilling as that process feels for Tea Party members and conservative intellectuals, its merit as an electoral formula remains unproven at best.

Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, set the tone when he warned of fiscal catastrophe in his response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey have grown progressively more blunt in calling for big changes to Medicare and Social Security....

Every presidential campaign has its own distinct backdrop. Four years ago, the contest began after midterm elections that were dominated by the Iraq war.

In early 1999, the economy was booming and the federal government had just recorded its first budget surplus in three decades. George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, assumed the good times would continue in calling for “prosperity with a purpose.”

In early 2011, high unemployment and enormous budget deficits have Republicans warning of national decline, as they did during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

“I would compare it somewhat to 1980,” Mr. Khachigian said. If the analogy holds, Republican candidates will use fiscal issues to compete for the mantle of bold conservative leadership that Mr. Reagan captured.

But another lesson of 1980 is that unexpected events can rapidly shift the agenda. Nine days before Mr. Reagan announced his candidacy in November 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized American diplomats in Tehran — the start of the hostage crisis that became a major factor in that race.

Moreover, the primary calendar may shape the campaign’s dialogue in unexpected ways. “Social conservatives still drive the bus in Iowa,” Mr. Reed noted....

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