The Romney-Ryan ticket puts a weird twist on Republican politics, because they are essentially repudiating Ronald Reagan’s historic legacy and the fiscal alchemy with which he taught conservatives how to win presidential elections. Before the Gipper came along and erased the GOP’s sour expression, it was known as the party of pinch-penny scolds, always complaining about Democratic excesses, automatically skeptical of anything government might attempt to do for people. In traditional circles, this was called the “old-time religion.” Among younger conservative reformers, the doctrine was denounced as “root canal economics.” Since voters do not usually reward politicians for inflicting more pain on them, the GOP endured as a grumpy minority.

Ronald Reagan’s political genius was finding away around the trap. Put on a happy face and stop punishing voters for ambitious desires. Democrats won elections by making big promises and even keeping them. But why should liberals have all the fun? The Gipper did not entirely abandon the old sermons on debt and deficit spending, but in practice declined to take the red ink seriously (it could always be blamed on liberal big spenders, though the actual history shows Democrats have a consistently better record for fiscal prudence). The Gipper’s sunny optimism was bolstered by the wacky theory called “supply-side economics” that claimed big federal tax cuts would be fully replenished by rising tax revenue flowing from economic growth. The wishful theory has never been confirmed in fact. That hasn’t stopped pious Republicans from asserting its truth.

The Gipper’s presidency in fact unhinged fiscal order. Though he promised balanced budgets, Reagan governed aggressively in the opposite direction. His presidency (1980–88) launched the era of permanently swelling federal debt. The debt surpassed $1 trillion for the first time during the Gripper’s first term. It surpassed $9 trillion twenty-eight years later when George W. Bush’s term expired. Obama’s first term added trillions more, mainly driven by collapsing incomes and revenue in the depressed economy. Obama was in fact too timid in his pump-priming, though the Republicans accuse him of the opposite.

If Romney-Ryan are taken at at their word, they intend to restore the old “root canal economics” that the Gipper’s supply-side policy discarded. Of course, they intend to direct the flow of pain downward on the income ladder—the truly vicious hits reserved for the impoverished citizens who have no political clout. The wealthier citizens are to be rewarded again for being wealthy. But since the “root canal economics” was always a political loser, maybe Romney-Ryan won’t follow through with the tough talk. Or perhaps this is merely cynical rhetoric meant to manipulate voters, but not to be taken seriously as government policy.

The 2012 election also poses a hard test for the Democratic party. Responding to the irresponsible fiscal policies that began with Reagan, Democrats have attempted to steal the high ground of respectability and embrace pious sentiments of fiscal prudence. In these terms, the two parties have done a kind of ideological crossover during the last generation—a game of musical chairs in which the same defenseless people are the ones who get hurt most. Maybe this election should be about returning to older principles that seemed out of fashion.