Romney/Ryan get a bottomless stack of Get Out Of Budget Nonsense Jail Free Cards because the 2 + 2 = 5 stuff resonates with – feeds into – a certain kind of utopian conservative fantasy. It’s aspirational, rugged individualism stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all just stood on our own two feet! Since saying this sort of stuff amounts to signaling to the base ‘I’m one of you!’, it is easily discounted as rhetoric – because that is, in fact, what it is. This produces a kind of feedback loop. The more you use this stuff just to signal you’ve got the right attitude, the more it becomes noise for any other signaling purpose. You are no longer able to talk about the budget, because talking about the budget is just a proxy way of expressing a personal virtue ethics. By contrast, if Obama were to advocate expansions as radical as the cuts Romney/Ryan are advocating, everyone would take it seriously – literally. And well they should. Democrats would never advocate sweeping expansions unless they wanted them, and meant to try to get them. Because it’s not as though there are significant portions of the electorate who fantasize, vaguely, about the government being vastly vaster – but who would balk at any any attempt actually to do it – who can be pandered to, philosophically.
Making government bigger, for embiggening’s sake, is no one’s hazy dream of personal virtue; cutting the government, for cutting’s sake, is.