Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the ongoing battle over the debt ceiling is that Republicans who remain intransigent about tax hikes continue to be referred to in the media as “fiscal conservatives.”

Jonathan Bernstein noted over the weekend that this is a perennial problem in the media. Exhibit A: A Washington Post article that said this:

Democrats were demanding more than $800 billion in new tax revenue, causing heartburn among the hard-line fiscal conservatives who dominate the House Republican caucus.

Bernstein replied that their opposition to new tax revenue doesn’t make them fiscal conservatives: “Fiscal conservatives are deficit hawks. They don’t want the federal budget to run a deficit. That’s what fiscal conservative has pretty much always meant.” The opposition to new revenues makes it more likely that the federal budget will run a deficit.

Another misuse of the term “fiscal conservatives” can be found here, courtesy of Time’s Jay Newton-Small.

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.

Meanwhile, the Post also reports today that the president continues to want a $4 trillion deficit reduction deal, which would include politically disastrous cuts to entitlement programs:

His proposal, which he has said would bring certainty to an economy constrained by anxiety over the nation’s fiscal condition, would involve spending cuts to agency budgets, including the Pentagon’s; ending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and changing entitlement programs in ways his party has traditionally opposed.

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.