Thanks to an ultraconservative congressional faction, many Americans now view the Republican Party as extremist, petty, and irresponsible. You need look no further than the ridiculous, drawn-out drama over the so-called fiscal cliff to see the GOP's inability to negotiate reality.
But while its brand is damaged, the GOP has maintained its mystique as the party of fiscal restraint. Shortly before the election, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that, by a margin of 51 to 43 percent, Americans believed Mitt Romney would do a better job on the deficit than President Obama. That's in keeping with years of public belief that Republicans are fiscally conservative.
It's flat-out wrong. It's a convenient myth that Republicans have sold the taxpayers - clever marketing that covers a multitude of sins. There is nothing in the GOP's record over the last two decades showing it to be sincere about balancing the budget, ferreting out waste, or reining in excessive government spending.
Just look back at the presidency of George W. Bush - eight years of red ink that Republicans would like you to forget. First, Bush pushed through the tax cuts that ruined Bill Clinton's balanced budgets. Then he proceeded to prosecute two wars and enact a huge new entitlement, the Medicare prescription drug plan. Dick Cheney reportedly said, "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
Here's what Republicans and their base believe in: cutting spending on programs that benefit the poor, the darker-skinned, the sciences, and the arts. They want to fire bureaucrats who prevent businesses from harming their customers.
But the GOP doesn't really want to end big government, nor does it care about balancing the budget. If it did, wouldn't its members be ready to tackle the Pentagon? As we wind down a decade of war, isn't it an excellent time to cut back on hyper-expensive weaponry? Can't we stop feeding the military-industrial complex?
Instead, House Republicans have done everything they can to protect military spending. Romney, for his part, campaigned on a promise to build more warships. Remember that the Pentagon accounts for about 30 percent of federal spending.
Then there are those pesky retirement programs, Social Security and Medicare. House Republicans supported Paul Ryan's plan to make Medicare a voucher program, but they did so knowing it would never see the light of day. If they were so proud of it, why didn't Ryan campaign on it last fall?
Instead, the Romney-Ryan team denounced Obama for cutting Medicare. The party that claims the mantle of fiscal responsibility shamelessly pandered to its aging base by blaming Obama for trying to rein in one of the costliest government programs.
Democrats have their own soul-searching ahead on Social Security and Medicare, which cannot be sustained without tax increases, benefit cuts, or a combination of the two. (Let me rush to say here that Social Security is a much easier fix: Just hike the payroll tax for people earning more than $114,000 a year.) Medicare costs especially are growing at an alarming rate as baby boomers retire.
Still, tea partyers - the core supporters of the arch-conservatives in Congress - aren't keen on cutting Medicare, polls show. Many of them seem to believe that cutting spending means cutting only that which goes to other people, not to them. Indeed, political science research shows a sharp racial edge underlying those sentiments, with racially resentful whites likely to favor cuts to programs they associate with the "undeserving" poor, such as Head Start.
After winning the gavel to remain House speaker last week, John Boehner said the "American dream is in peril" because of debt and pledged to reduce it. As another budget brawl nears - the debt-ceiling fight that will be upon us in a couple of months - you'll hear Republicans frequently claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility. There is no reason to believe them.