In this environment, it feels safer to speak loudly about reform but carry a little stick. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has warmed Republican hearts by conspicuously clashing with Democratic politicians and public-sector unionists who have helped drive the Garden State into a fiscal ditch. But look beyond the crowd pleasing one-liners (“What the hell are we paying you for?” Christie once said to Obama after the president failed to come up with a debt reduction proposal), and you see a proposed state budget that increases spending by $2.1 billion (according to The Record of North Jersey), corporate-welfare giveaways since 2010 amounting to nearly $1.6 billion (according to The New York Times), and signals that the governor favors raising New Jersey’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. But Christie probably will remain a conservative favorite (especially outside his state) as long as he continues calling opponents “numbnuts” now and then.

Mitt Romney has taken this risk aversion strategy a step further, altogether avoiding specific proposals for confronting the federal fiscal crisis. Romney promises to “cut, cap, and balance” the budget, but he also vows to boost military spending, protect Medicare, and shore up Social Security. In a comical mid-April flurry, news outlets reported that Romney had told high-level donors at a private fundraiser, “I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate.” When word of this vaguer-than-Schwarzenegger promise got out, the Romney campaign immediately backpedaled. A spokesman told CNN the candidate was “tossing ideas out, not unveiling policy.”…

This is the tepid stuff that wins Republican Party nominations in 2012, the first full year since World War II in which total federal debt will exceed gross domestic product. There isn’t a politician alive who doesn’t understand that the current trend is unsustainable. Yet there are virtually no politicians who have placed this national interest at the center of their agenda.