BEN NELSON’S MISPLACED PRIORITIES…. Before the Senate broke for its summer recess, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) sided quite a bit with far-right Republicans on economic measures, and effectively drew a line in the sand. From now on, he wouldn’t vote for anything, regardless of merit, if it increased the deficit.

He opposed extending unemployment benefits, for example, because they were only partially paid for, and no matter how badly the jobless were hurting, the deficit was more important. “[T]he American people are right,” he said at the time. “We’ve got to stop doing that.”

If deficit hawks were consistent and principled, I’d almost understand their position. I think it’s wildly irresponsible to prioritize the deficit over economic growth and job creation, but if these guys were unfailing in their commitment to the issue, and were really serious about not asking future generations to pick up the tab for our current policies, fine.

My problem is that they’re never actually consistent and principled. Extended unemployment benefits? Nelson said the deficit was more important. Aid to states to prevent mass layoffs? Nelson said the deficit was more important. Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires? Nelson says the deficit no longer matters.

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a centrist who has been a key vote on several Obama administration initiatives, said Thursday that he supports extending all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts until the economic recovery has taken root. Raising taxes on wealthier taxpayers could hurt the economy, he said.

“I support extending all of the expiring tax cuts until Nebraska’s and the nation’s economy is in better shape, and perhaps longer, because raising taxes in a weak economy could impair recovery,” Nelson said in a statement Thursday.

The cowardice is fascinating. Throughout 2009, the conservative line — repeated by every Republican in Washington and center-right Dems like Nelson — is that the deficit is a scourge that threatens America’s future. Indeed, the issue purportedly helped fuel the so-called Tea Party “movement.” Conservatives warned constantly about a “debt crisis” and “turning into Greece.”

But when tax cuts for the top 2% — the wealthiest of wealthy Americans — are on the line, all of a sudden, those fears go right out the window.

Just to be clear, neither Nelson nor his Republican allies intend to pay for these tax cuts for the rich. Why bother? Adding to the deficit is fine, so long as it’s the wealthy who’ll benefit. But don’t ask for extended unemployment benefits — aid that actually stimulates the economy — because those who are struggling are just going to have to sacrifice.

My goal is not to pick on Nelson in particular. He’s one of the more offensive characters in this little game, but there are other nervous Dems who pretend to care about the deficit until tax cuts for the wealthy are on the chopping block.

But the lesson here should be obvious: every conservative who insists we can’t afford entitlements, and can’t afford unemployment aid, and can’t afford to save teachers’ jobs, and can’t afford to invest in infrastructure, but then turns around and says we can afford tax cuts for the very wealthy has no credibility on fiscal responsibility. None.

Their collective cries about “won’t someone think of the children?” are a pathetic joke.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.