According to a column in Kaiser Health News, Republican staffers jeered at any and all proposals to use Medicare and Medicaid funds better. Spending money on prevention was no more than a “slush fund.” Research on innovation was “an oxymoron.” And there was no reason to pay for “so-called effectiveness research.”

To put this in context, you have to realize two things about the fiscal state of America. First, the nation is not, in fact, “broke.” The federal government is having no trouble raising money, and the price of that money — the interest rate on federal borrowing — is very low by historical standards. So there’s no need to scramble to slash spending now now now; we can and should be willing to spend now if it will produce savings in the long run.

Second, while the government does have a long-run fiscal problem, that problem is overwhelmingly driven by rising health care costs. The Congressional Budget Office expects Social Security outlays as a percentage of G.D.P. to rise 30 percent over the next quarter-century, as the population ages, but it expects a near doubling of the share of G.D.P. spent on Medicare and Medicaid.

So if you’re serious about deficits, you shouldn’t be pinching pennies now; you should be looking for ways to rein in health spending over the long term. And that means taking exactly the steps that had those G.O.P. staffers sneering.

Think of it this way: Congress could, with a stroke of a pen, cut Social Security benefits in half. But it couldn’t do the same with health spending: Medicare can’t suddenly start paying to replace only half a heart valve or mandate that bypass operations stop halfway through.

Limiting health costs, therefore, requires a smarter approach. We need to work harder on prevention, which can be much cheaper than a cure. We need to find innovative ways of managing health care. And, above all, we need to know what works and what doesn’t so that Medicare and Medicaid can say no to expensive procedures with little or no medical benefit. “So-called comparative effectiveness research” is central to any rational attempt to deal with America’s fiscal problems.

But today’s Republicans just aren’t into rationality. They claim to care deeply about deficits — but they’ve spent the past two years putting cynical, demagogic attacks on any attempt to actually deal with long-run deficits at the heart of their campaign strategy.

Here’s a recent example. In his new book, Mike Huckabee — the current leader in polls asking Republicans whom they want to nominate in 2012 — attacks the Obama stimulus because it included funds for, yes, comparative effectiveness research: “The stimulus didn’t just waste your money; it planted the seeds from which the poisonous tree of death panels will grow.” Will others in the G.O.P. stand up and say that Mr. Huckabee is wrong, that Medicare needs to know which medical procedures actually work? Don’t hold your breath.

Of course, Republicans aren’t the only cynics. As the national debate over fiscal policy descends ever deeper into penny-pinching, future-killing absurdity, one voice is curiously muted — that of President Obama.

The president and his aides know that the G.O.P. approach to the budget is wrongheaded and destructive. But they’ve stopped making the case for an alternative approach; instead, they’ve positioned themselves as know-nothings lite, accepting the notion that spending must be slashed immediately — just not as much as Republicans want.

Mr. Obama’s political advisers clearly believe that this strategy of protective camouflage offers the president his best chance at re-election — and they may be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that the White House is aiding and abetting the dumbing down of our deficit debate.

And this dumbing down bodes ill for the nation’s future. Health care is only one of the large and difficult problems America needs to deal with, ranging from infrastructure to climate change, all of which demand that we engage in a lot of hard thinking. Yet what we have instead is a political culture in which one side sneers at knowledge and exalts ignorance, while the other side hunkers down and pretends to halfway agree.