Back in the good old days, a fiscal conservative was one who believed in balanced budgets. For instance, George H.W. Bush.
As vice president, Bush I smiled politely throughout the 80's as the national debt tripled under the leadership of his boss, Ronald Reagan, who famously said "deficits don't matter." And recognizing the political benefits of the policy he once referred to as "voodoo economics," Bush campaigned on a "no new taxes" pledge when he ran for president in 1988.
But alas, Bush reneged on his promise. He raised taxes. He couldn't bear the fiscal implications of a deficit with no end in sight. What kind of message would that send to creditors?
Poor Papa Bush. Did Reagan's gradual slip into senility convince him to doubt the Gipper's grip on the GOP legacy? The party of Eisenhower was done for.
The same issue surfaced in 1996, and again in 2008. Former opponents of irresponsible tax cuts -- Bob Dole and John McCain -- heeded the advice of strategists who delivered fiscal conservatives bad news: Their ideology doesn't sell well in 30 second ads. In fact, as McCain demonstrated, denouncing one $3 million project is a better bet than going after the real source of fiscal uncertainty.
As Congress poises to reach a deal on the Bush II tax cuts, there is apparently no way the Democrats can extend the cuts just for the middle class. The GOP won't budge. And now the Dems are "accepting" a compromise in which they temporarily extend the cuts universally, in exchange for an extension on unemployment compensation.
Temporary. We'll see. In two years -- the length of extension proposed -- there will be another election, and politicians will once again posture against tax increases.
There's always going to be an excuse not to raise taxes. If the economy is bad then you don't want to hurt it. If the economy is good then why hurt it? Just look at Wisconsin. Our structural deficit comes from the years of boom economy that allowed Tommy Thompson's big-spending policies to coast without criticism, and without tax increases to offset them.
There is some room for optimism, however. When the extensions come up again, two years from now, hopefully Obama, either as a lame duck or a re-elected president, will be able to veto any extensions. Hopefully the economy will be better, and the elections will be far enough away.
But I am skeptical. The trend of virtually all of American growth going to the top earners in society will probably continue.