GETTING MY BEARINGS ON DEFICIT POLITICS…. I realize that the political significance of the federal budget deficit has its ebbs and flows. In 1992, it was an issue the public started to take seriously. By 2000, the deficit had been eliminated entirely, and no longer mattered.

By 2009, conservative Americans were literally organizing mass protests over the issue, demanding that policymakers stop racking up bills that future generations would have to pay. Less than a year later, conservative interest waned when tax cuts became the new priority.

So, I’m afraid I’m left a little confused. I don’t have as many conservative friends as I used to, so I’m not sure who I’d ask to help me get my bearings on conservative politics. At this point, I think I have a sense of the rules, but it’s hard to predict when those rules might change.

As I now understand it, the budget deficit and the national debt are a huge national crisis, which threaten our future and our very way of life, if the proposal on the table is:

* Aid to the unemployed

* American infrastructure

* Jobs for teachers, firefighters, and police officers

* Retirement security

* Investment in a new U.S. energy policy

* Access to affordable health care for America’s families

* Quality public schools and student loans

* Transportation, public works, research and development, childcare, and food stamps

On the other hand, the budget deficit and the national debt are utterly meaningless, and shouldn’t even be considered, if the proposal on the table is:

* Tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires

* War

* Infrastructure in Iraq

* an expanded government role in health care through Medicare Part D

* an expanded government role in education through No Child Left Behind

What do you say, Republicans and Tea Partiers? Do I have this about right?

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.