The Republican failure on the deficit is serious. Mr Obama is deeply vulnerable here, not least because he is still trying to kid Americans that their fiscal future can be shored up merely by taxing the rich more. But the Republican solution of tax cuts and even deeper spending cuts (typified by Mr Pawlenty’s proposals this week) is arguably worse. Most of the burden of repairing America’s public finances should certainly fall on spending. But the deficit is simply too large to close through spending cuts alone. The overall tax take—at its lowest, as a share of GDP, in decades—must eventually rise.
An honest Republican candidate would acknowledge this and lay out the right way to do so—for instance, by eliminating distorting loopholes and thus allowing revenues to rise. He (or she) would also come up with a more systematic plan on the spending side. No Republican seems to understand the difference between good spending and bad. Investment in roads and education, for instance, ought not to be lumped in with costly and unreformed entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare. Defence should not be sacrosanct. That Mr Obama has no strategy either is not an excuse.
In most elections promising toughness is not a successful tactic; but this time Americans know that their country has huge problems and that their nation’s finances are the biggest problem of all. In Britain the Conservatives made the incumbent Gordon Brown seem ridiculous by spelling out the austerity that he at first barely dared mention; now another tough-talking centre-right party has won in Portugal (see article). If ever there was a time for pragmatic conservative realism, it is now. Mr Obama might also bear that in mind.