Steve Benen and Digby both have posts up wondering why Beltway commentators are treating John Boehner’s demand for trillions in cuts seriously when he’s already agreed that the debt ceiling must be raised and has completely taken any tax hikes off the table.

Both Benen and Digby point out that if Dems adopted a similarly intransigent position in exchange for an outcome that we’ve already agreed is inevitable, they’d be laughed out of town. As Digby says:

Picture this. The roles are reversed. The Democrats have the House and the Republicans have the Senate and the Presidency. The debt ceiling vote looms. And suppose the Democrats admitted publicly that they would, of course, agree to raise the debt ceiling but also insisted that the Republicans agree to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations by the same amount that would be borrowed. And under no circumstances would they agree to even a penny in spending cuts. And everyone in Washington and on Wall Street treats this absurd “marker” seriously.

I know. It’s unimaginable on every level.

Benen adds:

The Speaker reminded us last night that he considers one penny in new revenue entirely unacceptable. I’ll look forward to all the pundits questioning his “seriousness.”

I think this goes back to a problem that has afflicted the debate over spending and government from the beginning: The discourse is badly distorted by the fact that the meaning of standard Washington terms like “fiscally hawkish” and “fiscally serious” are entirely arbitrary. These terms, as commonly employed in Beltway parlance, simply don’t mean what liberals think they should mean, i.e., “fully committed to reducing the deficit and debt by any means necessary, tax hikes and new revenues included.” Rather, they mean approximately: “fully committed to reducing the deficit and debt through spending cuts, entitlement reform and a rock-ribbed adherence to general hostility towards expansive government.”

This isn’t intended to be glib. I submit that this is quite literally what many commentators mean when they employ these phrases.

It’s a matter of tone. Cutting things (spending, entitlements) sounds hawkish, stern, and serious. Raising things (taxes, revenues) to cover costs somehow smacks of a failure to control those costs — it sounds lax and undisciplined. Dems in some ways reinforce this dynamic by continually acceeding to the right’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame. The result is a debate that’s shifted so far to the right that the GOP approach — trillions in cuts, no new taxes — doesn’t sound extreme or lopsided. If anything, it sounds like an overdose of sternness and austerity. That’s a position Republicans are happy to be associated with, and they get rewarded by commentators for it.

UPDATE: Post edited for clarity.