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.
Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, set the tone when he warned of fiscal catastrophe in his response to President Barack 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.
Now Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has seized the spotlight with his showdown with state workers — a made-for-cable spectacle at the dawning of a new presidential race that has galvanized Republican budget hawks and unions allied with Democrats.
"That's how the race is going to evolve," said Scott Reed, who managed Sen. Bob Dole's campaign for the White House in 1996. "It's going to be the serious and the unserious."
That increases pressure on Republican presidential contenders to match bracing specifics from the likes of Christie, who last week unequivocally embraced an increase in the Social Security retirement age. But shadowing such discussions are the setbacks that befell President Ronald Reagan, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush when they attempted similar bold moves.
It is one thing to acknowledge that the entitlement programs Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid drive the nation's long-term deficit. It is another to win a national election while pledging to scale them back.
"It's not the third rail," cautioned Ken Khachigian, a speechwriter for Reagan, "until you touch it."
Lessons of 1980
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," Khachigian said. If the analogy holds, Republican candidates will use fiscal issues to compete for the mantle of bold conservative leadership that Reagan captured.
But another lesson of 1980 is that unexpected events can rapidly shift the agenda. Nine days before 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," Reed noted.
That may explain one little-noticed recent line from Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi that established a contrast with Daniels' call for a "truce" on social issues in deference to fiscal and economic challenges.
"A lot of people think while Republican governors were attacking fiscal issues we were ignoring social issues — that's not right," Barbour told the Conservative Political Action Conference. Highlighting "my pro-life agenda," he invoked an anti-abortion group's declaration that Mississippi is "the safest state in America for an unborn child."
What is sometimes forgotten about Reagan as a candidate is that he only carried tough talk so far about cutting spending.
"This does not mean sacrificing essential services; nor do we need to destroy the system of benefits which flow to the poor, the elderly, the sick and the handicapped," he said in announcing his 1980 campaign.
It was only after he won the presidency that Reagan's administration proposed cuts in Social Security. The president quickly backed off, but the Republicans still suffered a backlash in the 1982 congressional elections. Voters also punished them when Gingrich, against the advice of campaign strategists, sought to curb Medicare spending in 1995. His struggles over the issue helped President Bill Clinton win re-election the following year — and persuaded congressional Republicans in 2005 to bury President George W. Bush's proposal for a partial privatization of Social Security.
With renewed zeal, House Republican leaders now pledge that the budget Ryan is working on will tackle entitlement spending. And that has campaign strategists worried once again.
"There's a difference between saying public employee unions have to take cuts, and attacking programs like Social Security and Medicare," said Tom Rath, an influential New Hampshire Republican. Rath's preferred presidential candidate, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, steered clear of the entitlement debate in his CPAC speech.
"Chris Christie was pretty brave," Khachigian said. "But it's pretty clear he's not running for president."