At first, the banquet audience at the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference paid Mitch Daniels, Indiana's Republican governor, the conventional compliment of frequently, almost reflexively, interrupting his address with applause.
But as audience members realized they were hearing something unconventional -- that they were being paid the rare compliment of being addressed as reflective adults -- they reciprocated his respect with quiet attention to his elegant presentation of conservatism for grown-ups.
America, he said, faces "a survival-level threat," a new "Red Menace" consisting of ink. No enterprise, public or private, "can remain self-governing, let alone successful, so deeply in hock to others as we are about to be."
Some people accept or "even welcome" a "ballooning of the state" that consigns America to "a gray parity" with other profligate nations. Such people believe history is controlled by a "leftward ratchet," always -- never mind "the Reagan Interruption" -- moving toward a more powerful state.
For such people, the task now is merely defensive: The Obama administration's spending commitments -- e.g., the health care law is designed to "engulf private markets and produce a single-payer system or its equivalent" -- will produce a leviathan state and reduce the American world preeminence some people deplore.
Focusing on earmarks (a "pernicious practice" but a "trifle") and "waste, fraud and abuse," says Daniels, trivializes the task of administering "bariatric surgery" to a "morbidly obese" government.
He favors restoring to presidents the power to impound appropriated funds ("you'd be amazed how much government you'll never miss"). But the big twofold task is to reform entitlements and produce economic growth -- "a long boom of almost unprecedented duration."
Americans must say "an affectionate thank-you" to the last century's major social welfare programs -- then sunset them, after those "currently or soon to be enrolled" have passed from the scene. Social Security and Medicare should be updated to conform to Americans' "increasing longevity and good health."
Medicare 2.0 should respect their dignity and competence by empowering them to make "their own decisions" by delivering its dollars directly to individuals, and expecting them to "pay for more of their routine care like the discerning, autonomous customers we know them to be."
To spur economic growth, we must "untie Gulliver": "The regulatory rainforest through which our enterprises must hack their way is blighting the future of millions of Americans." And Daniels thinks conservatives' "first thought" should be about "those still on that first rung of life's ladder":
"Upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise, and the stagnation of the middle class is in fact becoming a problem, on any fair reading of the facts. Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it, but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some."
Daniels has practiced the lean government he preaches. Under him, Indiana has its fewest state employees since 1978, the nation's lowest state government employment per capita, the lowest effective property taxes and the third-lowest per capita spending.
So he has the credentials to counsel conservatives about the need to compromise in the interest of broadening the constituency for difficult reforms.
"Change of the dimension we need," says Daniels, "requires a coalition of a dimension no one has recently assembled," including people who "surf past C-SPAN to get to SportsCenter." Which may mean ideological dilution: "Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers."
He reminded his listeners that when he was serving Ronald Reagan, the president admonished him and others that "we have no enemies, only opponents."
The case for less strident conservative rhetoric is practical: "As we ask Americans to join us on such a boldly different course, it would help if they liked us, just a bit."
Do not, Jefferson warned, undertake great departures on "slender majorities." Conservatives criticized Democrats for doing just that regarding health care.
Big changes, Daniels knows, will require a broad majority, perhaps one assembled after 2012 by someone with his blend of accomplishments, aversion to pandering and low-key charisma of competence.
George Will's column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.