Based on nothing but my own social interactions, I know a lot of folks who describe themselves as “fiscally conservative but socially liberal.” When pressed a little further, a picture comes together: they support gay rights and have no interest in banning abortion, but are generally uncomfortable with large deficits and the perceptions of excessive debt.

With this in mind, Republicans love to describe themselves as “fiscal conservatives,” which satisfies their base and is intended to appeal to swing voters. What’s more, the media loves to play along.

But if the phrase is going to have any meaning, it’s worth appreciating the fact that there’s nothing in contemporary Republican politics that’s fiscally conservative.

In the Bush era, Republicans believed in passing tax cuts without paying for them, expanding government without paying for it, and going to war without paying for it. When asked, these “fiscally conservative” Republicans admit that they saw the entire eight years as a period in which it was “standard practice not to pay for things.”

In the Obama era, as Adam Serwer explained this morning, Republicans are even further from the “fiscally conservative” label they (and too many reporters) claim the GOP deserves.

The GOP of today isn’t so much committed to not running a deficit as it is to cutting the social safety net, which is why the debt ceiling talks are stalling over tax increases. It’s a miracle of messaging that Republicans have managed to persuade reporters to continue referring to them as “fiscal conservatives,” since the label implies a level of responsibility that the GOP simply hasn’t shown. Republicans refuse to raise taxes at all despite the fact that rates are at historically low levels. […]

Now, I’m not one to find the label “fiscal conservative” particularly impressive since I think there are times the government needs to run a deficit. But to the extent there’s someone operating with a “fiscal conservative” viewpoint in these negotiations, it’s the president. That’s much to the chagrin of liberals, who argue correctly that the last thing the country’s anemic recovery needs is more cuts to government spending. But if we are going to continue to use terms like “fiscal conservative,” we should be clearer about what they actually mean.

Quite right. For good or ill, President Obama is taking fiscal conservatism very seriously right now. After the short-term Recovery Act, the White House has insisted every new initiative be fully paid for, and as of last week, it’s the president and his team who’ve even offered Republicans a massive debt-reduction plan.

Which, of course, the GOP has no interest in pursuing.

The sooner reporters stop pretending Republicans are the “fiscally conservative” ones, the btter.

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.