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Governor Chris Christie may have saved last night’s Republican debate.

That’s an uncomfortable statement for me to make, given how consistently wrong Christie has been on issues of surveillance and foreign policy. But last night the New Jersey governor was the only one who expressed any concern over our bloated federal budget. Asked about entitlements, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz chose instead to duel over their tax plans. That’s when Christie jumped in:

Maria, I’d like to interrupt this debate on the floor of the Senate to actually answer the question you asked, which was on entitlements. …The fact is the reason why that no one wants to answer entitlements up here is because it’s hard. It’s a hard problem. And I’m the only one up on this stage who back in April put forward a detailed entitlement reform plan that will save over $1 trillion, save Social Security, save Medicare, and avoid this — avoid what Hillary Rodham Clinton will do to you.

Christie, whatever the imperfections of his plan, has made entitlement reform a hallmark of his campaign. It’s a good fit with his tough-guy approach to thorny issues and he’s to be commended for it. But where were the others? Other than Christie and Senator Rand Paul, who was absent last night, the Republican candidates have been mum on the government’s budget overruns. They breeze through lines about the national debt or Obama spending too much, without ever delving into what they would do differently. Crowd favorites like taxes and Obamacare receive far more mentions.

In fact, one of the biggest applause lines last night came when Rubio boasted about how fiscally insane his presidency would be:

Here’s the bottom line, and I’ll close with this. If I’m president of the United States and Congress tries to cut the military, I will veto that in a millisecond.

Never mind that the Pentagon’s civilian bureaucracy is covered in fat. Never mind that the Department of Defense recently wasted $43 million on a gas station in Afghanistan that almost no one will be able to use. Former senator Tom Coburn was as hawkish a Republican as you’re likely to find, but he understood that Defense was a self-aggrandizing government department like any other, and released a report outlining $68 billion in Pentagon waste. Even Senator John McCain acknowledges that the military’s procurement system is an unmitigated disaster, and has taken steps to reform it. Only Rubio is such an impulsive spendthrift as to issue a veto threat against any military cuts.

So nothing from the candidates on military spending, precious little on entitlements, and radio silence on the low-hanging fruit in the discretionary budget. Why is this happening? Nick Gillespie has a theory:

The Republican Party is not actually dedicated to reducing spending by the federal government. Leave aside the many rhetorical gestures to the contrary. Yes, they complain about “out of control” spending under Democrats ad even occasionally under their own party. But when you look at the GOP’s policies, votes, and speeches, virtually all of its representatives are clearly in favor of an always-escalating defense budget and maintaining or increasing current levels of spending on Social Security and Medicare. Republicans might be fooling themselves or they might be trying to fool the public into believing they’re fiscal hawks.

Every word of that is true. But let’s look outside the reach of Republican beadledom for a moment. What happened to the tea party? What happened to the right’s supposedly resurgent fiscally conservative wing, which forced profligate Republicans to cut spending or shut down the government trying? Where’s the pressure? Why is it that when Paul Ryan and Barack Obama teamed up to pass last month’s abominable omnibus bill, mainstream conservative sites like Breitbart were mostly exercised over its immigration apostasies and not its general wastefulness? It seems the tea party’s original intent has been drowned in outrage over immigrants and refugees.

The only candidate on last night’s main debate stage who can credibly be associated with the tea party is Senator Ted Cruz. Yet when Rubio accused him of being too tight-fisted with the Pentagon, Cruz pathetically responded that he’d supported a Rubio amendment increasing defense spending. Fiscal responsibility, we hardly knew ye.