Extremism during the election, instead of after?

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Mitt Romney’s budget plan is, at a certain level, kind of amusing, at least in a macabre sort of way. The Republican presidential hopeful seriously believes – or least wants you to seriously believe – that he can slash taxes, increase defense spending, and balance the budget simultaneously. You’d think with his vast fortune, Romney could have bought a calculator by now.

Ezra Klein calls the GOP candidate’s plan “a fantasy.” That’s certainly true, but it’s the kind of fantasy that I find curious. From Ezra’s piece:

Consider what Romney has promised. By 2016, he says federal spending will be below 20 percent of GDP, and at least 4 percent of that will be defense spending. At that point, he will cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, meaning it can never rise above that level.

All that’s hard enough. Romney will have to cut federal spending by between $6 and $7 trillion over the next decade to hit those targets. As my colleague Suzy Khimm has detailed, those budget promises already require cuts far in excess of what even Paul Ryan’s budget proposes.

But Ryan’s budget includes more than $700 billion in Medicare cuts over the next decade, Romney’s budget won’t. And Romney promises that there will be no other changes to Social Security or Medicare for those over 55, which means neither program can be cut for the next 10 years.

Right, Romney’s “plan” is transparently silly. It’d be foolish enough to think he could eliminate the deficit while walling off more than half the federal budget, but the Republican candidate actually goes further – he not only intends to shield the Pentagon and entitlements from cuts; he’s going to spend more money on them, while also passing a massive tax break.

To make the arithmetic work, Romney would have to make enormous cuts to public investments in every other part of government, including everything from law enforcement to infrastructure, education to medical research, food safety to immigration.

Politically, this would be insane. Indeed, the plan is quite literally unbelievable. It’s why Ezra followed up on Twitter with a good question: “Does anyone really, truly think that he’ll push these much more severe, unpopular cuts when in office?”

Perhaps not. But that leads to a related concern that turns Campaign Politics 101 on its head: Romney is striving for extremism before the election, not after.

Look again at the picture Ezra painted: according to Romney’s own promises, a vote for him is a vote for a wildly unpopular series of budget moves. If voters were aware of the fact that Romney were proposing deep cuts to law enforcement, infrastructure, education, medical research, food safety, and immigration, while also giving the wealthy a ginormous tax break, he’d probably lose nearly every state.

But therein lies the point. Common sense suggests candidates – in either party, in any cycle – would run a general-election campaign promising relative moderation. Maybe after the election the candidates might propose measures the American mainstream doesn’t like, but sane contenders don’t want the electorate to perceive them as radical.

And yet, here we are. “Does anyone really, truly think that he’ll push these much more severe, unpopular cuts when in office?” It seems hard to believe. But I also wonder if anyone can explain why he’s pushing these severe, unpopular cuts before he gets to office.

Budget and Mitt Romney

Extremism during the election, instead of after?

Updated