Can a nation without fiscal discipline endure?

Now that’s more like it.

Two weeks ago I ripped congressional Republicans, then in the minority party during the waning hours of Nancy Pelosi’s lame-duck session, for getting boxed into an unholy budget alliance with President Obama — a “tax-cut and spend” compromise where Republicans got their extension of the Bush tax cuts, Obama got scads of new unfunded federal spending, and our kids got stuck with a big new pile on a national debt that already dwarfs a Colorado 14-er.

It was a rotten compromise and a big mistake for Republicans.

But finally, there’s good news from Washington for those who believe that Uncle Sam isn’t omniscient.

Wednesday, as Pelosi had her manicured mitts pried from the speaker’s gavel, the first outlines of gutsy budget action from Republicans emerged. House Republicans will power through billions and billions in discretionary cuts immediately, all part of a broader plan to cut discretionary spending back to 2008 levels.

Now let’s not be Pollyanna here. Many of these reforms will get watered down during negotiations with the flaccid flacks in the Senate, then further watered down by Obama’s orchestra of big-government ogres.

But at least — and at last! — the fight about the size and scope of our federal government is joined.

And whether conservatives get a whole loaf, half loaf, or just a few big bites out of the loaf, at least the loaf is getting smaller. (I solemnly swear to never use a bread analogy again.)

But there’s more here for conservatives to cheer.

For starters, the messaging — i.e. cutting the federal budget back to 2008 levels — is simple, smart and spot on. In the business of legislation, he who controls the message controls the politics, and he who controls the politics controls the policy outcome. Which makes the Republicans ‘winning message good news.

As proof of the decisive import of message, recall the evolution of the estate-tax debate. This tax on the transfer of wealth from a father and mother to their sons and daughters was as good as a “dead man walking” when Republicans rebranded it the “death tax.”  Think about it: It’s easy for Democrats and liberal East Coast Republicans to tax the snot out of the transfer of daddy’s mansion to his trust-funded son. But when the debate shifted — when the question became, should death be a taxable event? — the debate was over and the death tax was temporarily done with.

Unfortunately for Republicans, we also have a tendency to prove the same point only in reverse — by losing critical debates after flubbing the message.

Recall Newt Gingrich’s mortal mistakes in the immediate aftermath of the 1994 Republican Revolution during his budget fights aplenty with Bill Clinton. It was Gingrich’s words — his messaging — that betrayed his cause. The entire debate was about things like shutting down Yellowstone, taking away Grandma’s meals on wheels or the speaker’s flip comment about letting Medicare “whither on the vine.”

The James Carville wing of the Democratic Party — as predictably as the sun rising in the east — shredded poor old Newt with all the dime-store demagoguery they could bring to bear.

And, just as predictably as the sun setting in the west, it worked.

It wasn’t long before opinion polls showed Speaker Newt was toxic — like Satan, only with a big office that overlooked Washington Mall. And when Gingrich was cut down, so was his mandate, his political leverage and his political agenda.

Note the difference in the here and now. While congressional Republicans will likely propose to cut all sorts of programs that tug on the heart strings, they aren’t using wild or reckless words.

James Carville and his progeny will no doubt use the same old class warfare. But congressional Republicans — like all thinking people — will wonder: Who in the world is spending more today than they did in 2008?  If real people can spend less and survive, why can’t government do the same?

And so it is, a Republican Party that has figured out the art of messaging old-fashioned, limited government. But more important than the words used to describe these big bang budget cuts is the inherent worth of these big bang budget cuts.

Government is too damned big. Period. (Ooops, I sounded like Newt.)

And it is time to have a real, live, honest debate about whether a nation without fiscal discipline can long endure.

If Republicans stay at it, it’s a debate they just might win.

Josh Penry is a West Slope native and former state Senate Republican leader.


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