Because they are intelligent beings, candidates overwhelmingly prefer raising their own generalized campaign theme over responding to somebody else's specific campaign issue. Fiscal responsibility, to be achieved through "cutting the fat out of government," has been a longtime popular theme. But which neighborhood to lacerate with the new expressway is a difficult issue. Themes are politically a lot safer than issues.
In 1980, Republican candidates, from the courthouse to the White House, sounded the powerful theme of cutting the size, scope and spending of the federal government and cutting everybody's taxes, too. Democrats, sensing too late that the GOP was on to something, tried to scramble into that same theme park. But, that November, the Republicans were judged to be more fiscally sane than their opponents, and for this, as well as other reasons, 1980 was a big Republican year.
One problem with themes is that they frequently appear later in the form of issues. Fiscal sanity is no longer just another pretty theme. Over the past two congresses, it has become a bunch of sticky issues that could expose Republican House incumbents to serious charges of hypocrisy.
Consider these events:
Shortly before the 1978 congressional elections, 140 of the 143 GOP House members voted for the Kemp-Roth bill to cut income taxes by 30 percent over three years. The Democrats opposed the bill, which was defeated in the House. But the lines were nicely drawn: tax cuts? Republicans were for 'em, Democrats against.
Next, in 1979, under the banner of fiscal sanity, came some 62 balance-the-budget constitutional amendments. Republicans knew, and were not reluctant to tell non-Republicans, that the federal budget was just like a family checkbook; you couldn't spend more than you took in.
But the federal budget was not balanced, and on June 4, 1980, the House passed, by the close vote of 208-198, the raising of the national debt ceiling to $879 billion, which at the time seemed like a lot of money. Even though failure to raise the debt limit would've meant the government's reneging on checks to both Social Security widowers and defense-contractor widows, the Republican House members voted 154-0 against President Carter's request to raise the limit.
Then came President Reagan with his economic recovery program, which did not include a balanced-budget constitutional amendment but did include the raising of the federal debt limit to a trillion dollars. The trillion-dollar mark was approved by the House on May 20, 1981, when the first budget resolution was adopted. House Republicans voted for that budget and the new debt limit by the margin of 167 to 8.
Of course, the Democrats have consistently supported the raising of debt ceilings; the Democrats have historically meant to the balanced budget what designer chocolates have meant to national nutrition and security. Still, Republicans, up for re-election and facing an unbooming economy, will probably almost surely hear something like this from the Democrats: You had the guts to try to amend the Constitution to balance the budget, yet you voted to bust that budget with a tax cut. Then you voted against a debt ceiling of less than $900 billion and for a debt ceiling of a trillion dollars, and gave us the largest annual deficit in history. And you say that you're the fiscally responsible guy?
All of the above positions were taken by several dozen congressmen, including the current budget director, David Stockman, and Reps. Barry Goldwater Jr. (R-Calif.), David Emery (R-Maine), Robin Beard (R-Tenn.) and Paul Trible (R-Va.). Not in that group, interestingly, is tax-cut champion Jack Kemp of New York, who consistently acknowledged that his objective was a growing economy, not a balanced budget. Nevertheless, in 1982 fiscal sanity may turn out to have been a great theme that became a lousy issue.