Republicans running in the 2012 presidential primary have a credibility gap. Only one announced candidate -- former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, and he is not exactly a household name -- supported the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011, which passed with 174 House and 28 Senate Republican votes this week. The others argued that the compromise debt-ceiling package did not meet their standards.
GOP primary voters should ask themselves, Will the field's ideological purity ruin the GOP's chance of retaking the White House? Will Americans see candidates who could not support workable legislation as credible when they vote in November 2012?
Front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, waited until Monday -- when the deal was cooked -- to issue a statement on the package. Romney recognized "the extraordinarily difficult situation" that had prompted GOP support for the package but stated that because it opens the door to higher taxes and defense cuts, he "personally cannot support this deal."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has tried to frame himself as the alternative to Romney. He's supposed to be the Republican who can win in November because he appeals to independent voters. He came out against the deal.
Like Romney, Pawlenty supported "cut, cap and balance" -- the GOP plan that passed in the House but tanked in the Senate. That's the Republicans' Beltway curse. The less likely a plan is to become law the likelier the White House hopefuls are to support it.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota voted against the debt-ceiling package. Bachmann is so hard-core that she voted against "cut, cap and balance," because the measure did not go far enough.
Ditto Rep. Ron Paul of Texas on both plans. (Paul is such a purist that I sometimes wonder whether he votes for himself.) Texas Gov. Rick Perry is flirting with a 2012 run. Would he have supported the debt deal? No, a spokesman told The Associated Press, it did not go far enough.
Where the rubber meets the road, however, when it comes to specific budget cuts, many Republicans get wobbly. The House passed a budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that trimmed federal spending by $6 trillion over 10 years, in part by turning Medicare into a voucher program in 2022.
Ron Paul voted against it, because -- hit rewind -- it did not go far enough. Bachmann voted for it but added an "asterisk" to her "yes" vote to protest the Medicare reform.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich famously panned the Ryan budget as "right-wing social engineering." Gingrich later apologized to Ryan. He should have stuck to the does-not-go-far-enough mantra.
Romney says he is "on the same page" as Ryan but has his own plan. Ditto Pawlenty. Huntsman alone has stood solidly with Ryan on Medicare. As he wrote in The Wall Street Journal, critics have a "moral responsibility" to propose their own formula to maintain the entitlement program's sustainability.
GOP voters are right to want a nominee who, unlike former President George W. Bush, pays more than lip service to the worthy goal of curbing the size of the federal government. For too long, when it has come to walking that walk, Republican leaders have not gone far enough.
But this week's debt deal changed that equation. Tea party stubbornness brought Washington to the point of endorsing cuts in the trillions of dollars. Then realists sealed the deal.
This compromise debt deal just might change Washington's culture of spending. If it does, when it comes time to vote, pragmatic Republicans may well look at the purist field and wonder, Are these people serious?