HOOKSETT, N.H. -- "Balancing the budget is the big one," says Penny Schmitthenner in the VFW hall.
It's a odd rallying call, but at John Kasich's election-eve rally -- a snow-drenched event outside an old-school general store -- putting receipts in balance with expenses, was at the heart of the enthusiasm.
"We're not paying our bills," Kasich supporter Peter Ellinwood answered when I asked what was the most important issue. "We're going to print money and print money.... At some point, there's too much debt."
"Maybe he'll balance the budget," said David Hughes, a Republican voter waiting in the snow for Kasich outside Robie's General Store.
Former U.S. Senator John Sununu, who served with Kasich in the U.S. House in the 1990s, also put a balanced budget front and center. I asked him what was the central policy piece of Kasich's campaign: "Nobody has the ability he does to turn our country around financially--to balance our budget, cut taxes.... Politicians talk about it. He's done it."
Last year, the federal government brought in $3.2 trillion and spent $3.8 trillion. The deficit was $582 billion.
What spending would Kasich cut to close that gap?
Sununu says "we need to do a much better job on discretionary spending," including "reform[ing] the Pentagon," which takes up nearly half of all discretionay spending. Discretionary spending is the spending Congress sets with annual appropriations, and it accounts for less than 30 percent of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Discretionary spending is shrinking when measured as a share of GDP. So the real work will have to happen in Medicare and Social Security.
"There are opportunities to save billions on the entitlement side as well as the discretionary side," Sununu tells me, calling for reforms to introduce new efficiencies into Medicaid.
Kasich is campaigning on passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. There are two reasons conservatives might lack enthusiasm for this:
First, Constitutional Amendments are incredibly hard to pass.
Second, a Balanced Budget Amendment might be a bad idea. For one thing, a BBA could force a tax increase.
"John Kasich has proved he can balance a budget without a Balanced Budget Amendment," Sununu said on the front stoop of Robie's, pointing to Kasich's work in Ohio and on the U.S. House Budget Committee."
"A Balanced Budget Amendment would not lead to higher taxes," argued Hughes. "If you live within your means, you won't need to raise taxes," in part because cutting taxes could spur more economic growth Hughes argues.
Many economists argue that a BBA could be dangerous for the economy by requiring austerity (spending cuts or tax hikes) in times of recession. Also, it's unclear it would work.
So a BBA is an idea that could be disastrous, would probably be pointless, could result in higher taxes, and would probably never happen. In that regard, it's a typical promise for a presidential campaign. (Remember Obama promising to ban all toys made in China, require all cars to run on 85-percent ethanol, and force employers to provide health insurance?)
What makes Kasich's balanced budget focus odd is that it's basically an accounting argument as a rallying call. Maybe New Hampshire goes for that kind of thing.
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.