12/05/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Let's Go Over the Cliff

The Republicans lost the election because they simply cannot say no. Mitt Romney had a plan for everything: fixing entitlements, energy independence, unemployment, unfair Chinese trade, bad public schools, etc. No subject was ever out of his jurisdiction. This became a sort of Kabuki theater at the second debate when a young college student asked about his uncertain job prospects and Romney "promised" he would have a job after graduating from college. Ironically, the young man sensed this promise could not be kept; he announced he was voting for Obama after the encounter. Most of the country reacted in the same way to Romney's promises of federally driven solutions.

It would be refreshing, or maybe even electrifying, if the Republicans actually told voters what they should be telling them: we can't help you. The federal government is deeply in debt, and Republicans are supposed to favor non-federal solutions to problems. Those two facts taken together should have compelled Romney to just say no over and over again. No to the young questioner. The federal government can't get you a job. You shouldn't ask a presidential candidate for a job unless you want to work on a campaign making phone calls for $10/hour. Jobs come from the private sector, and you need to have the skills employers are seeking. For all Romney knew, the questioner had a low G.P.A. making his job prospects bleak, and bleak for good reason.

Instead, Romney said yes to every questioner. Yes, I have a five-point plan for you. Yes, the federal government should make tuition more affordable. Yes, you should have subsidized medical care without regard to pre-existing conditions. Thus, the campaign was waged against the backdrop of a problem-solving federal government. The only group Romney would not offer a federal-oriented solution was people under 55 but close enough to 65 to be concerned about retirement. He would have changed Medicare for that demographic to premium support rather than government-sponsored medical insurance.

A campaign waged in this manner is tilted to the president because he has spent his entire adult life among professional progressives who earn their salaries from universities and think tanks by creating new federal programs for every aspect of human and non-human existence on this planet. They will offer more detailed, glibly delivered federal-sponsored solutions than the opposition. Obamacare may have been somewhat unpopular, but when Romney tried to offer an alternative "plan" it sounded a lot like what the president was talking about. Why choose federal-lite? On the economy, Romney spoke of a five-point plan to "create jobs." Point one was "energy independence." Nobody believed he would make the country energy independent, and it was equally unclear about how that would create jobs.

Had Romney told voters the government can't help them with their problems, and that they need to take them to state and local officials, and of course to their neighbors, clergy and others better equipped to handle them, he would have forced the country to face the cliff. We just can't afford to go on as before; we really are out of money.

Now Republicans can actually show us how bad a fiscal state we're in without the fear of imminent political defeat. They can refuse to make a deal with the president which violates their principles in exchange for a sobering dose of reality: big cuts in spending and higher taxes on everyone. It will rattle the markets for a few days but Republicans know we need to curtail the government. They were too timid to advocate it before the election but they can do it now and finally break the yes-I-can help-you syndrome.