Republicans Can Win on Economic Issues, Not a Culture War

America deserves a government focused on fixing the economy, not waging a culture war.

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The prize for the most astonishing quote from an administration official last week goes to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was asked by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan: "Do we have confidence that we're getting our fiscal situation under control, that we're preventing the debt from getting at these catastrophic levels?" After a bit of back and forth between the two at the budget hearing, Geithner responded: "We're not coming before you to say we have a definitive solution to our long-term problem. What we do know is we don't like yours."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit]

Let's call that "pulling a Geithner": when someone doesn't like anyone else's ideas, but won't propose any of his own. (There's one in every meeting, isn't there?) The Treasury secretary admits the administration has no long-term strategy for bringing down the debt, only more short-term spending. The administration's proposed budget, for the fourth year in a row, expands the federal deficit by over a trillion dollars. Last year, the president's big-spending budget failed in the Senate by a bipartisan vote of 97-0; this year's version will likely face the same fate. In this year's State of the Union address, the president spoke for over an hour without ever mentioning the recommendations of his own debt commission, headed by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who called this "the most predictable economic crisis in history." They're right. No wonder huge majorities of the electorate think our country is on the wrong track, and have for years. No wonder the president's approval ratings on economic issues are so bad. People aren't stupid.

Ryan recently urged conservatives to offer voters a clear alternative to President Obama in order to create a mandate for change after the fall elections. While there are some in the GOP who argue that social conservatism should come first—Rick Santorum, for example, keeps speaking out on "values" questions ranging from the environment to same-sex marriage to women in combat—Republicans are far more likely to win if they present a clear, common-sense agenda of limited government and fiscal responsibility.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Will the Culture Wars Benefit the GOP in the 2012 Election?]

Not everyone agrees on social issues, but concern for the economy is deep and wide. Among independent voters recently polled by Pew, only 29 percent say Obama's policies have made the economy better, 34 percent say they have made it worse, and 29 percent say they have had no effect. Republican candidates have a terrific opportunity to win the middle: They need to start making a compelling case now for enacting long-term pro-growth policies rather than short-term stimulus spending, lowering and simplifying tax rates for all, drastically reining in government spending and deficits, limiting over-regulation of small businesses, and reforming entitlements. Concern about the economy and jobs tops nearly every poll. Same-sex marriage does not.

The left likes to say that the American people aren't ready for entitlement reform and difficult spending cuts, but I'd say the opposite: It's the politicians who aren't ready for it. For the last several years, we've seen an extraordinarily engaged electorate. Tea Partyers began protesting the size and scope of government in early 2009. Voters elected fiscal conservatives in droves in the 2010 elections. And, thanks to the less-government-is-more libertarian message of Rep. Ron Paul, we've seen a tremendous number of first-time voters get involved in politics.

[Read Mary Kate Cary, Robert Schlesinger, and other U.S. News columnists in U.S. News Weekly, available on iPad.]

In fact, in Iowa, 48 percent of caucus-goers under age 30 supported Paul, more than double the number of young voters former Sen. Santorum attracted, and triple those of Mitt Romney. Paul did the same in New Hampshire, getting 47 percent of young voters. Although his support in South Carolina only reached 31 percent, it was enough to beat his opponents among the youngest demographic in all three of the early contests.