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Thanks to an ultraconservative congressional faction, many Americans now view the Republican Party as extremist, petty and irresponsible. You need look no further than the ridiculous, drawn-out drama over the so-called fiscal cliff to see the GOP’s inability to negotiate reality.

But while its brand is badly damaged, the Republican Party has managed to keep alive its mystique as the party of fiscal restraint. Shortly before the election, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that, by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent, Americans believed Mitt Romney would do a better job on the deficit than President Obama. That’s in keeping with years’ worth of public opinion that gives Republicans credit for fiscal conservatism.

But it’s flat-out wrong. That’s just a convenient myth that Republicans have sold the taxpayers — a clever bit of marketing that covers a multitude of sins. There is nothing in the GOP’s record over the last two decades showing it to be a party that is sincere about balancing the budget, ferreting out waste or reining in excessive government spending. Indeed, it’s a big lie.

Just look back at the presidency of George W. Bush — eight years of red ink that Republicans would like you to forget. First, Bush pushed through the tax cuts that ruined the balanced budgets Bill Clinton had enacted. Then, he proceeded to prosecute two wars and enact a huge new entitlement: the Medicare prescription drug plan. In response to concerns about spending from then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Dick Cheney reportedly said, “You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”

Here’s what Republicans and their base believe in: cutting spending for programs that benefit the poor, the darker-skinned, the sciences. They want to stop the flow of government funds to the arts. They want to fire bureaucrats who prevent businesses from harming their customers with poisons and bad products.

But the GOP doesn’t really want to end big government, nor does it really care about balancing the budget. If it did, wouldn’t its members be ready to tackle the Pentagon? As we wind down a decade of war, isn’t this an excellent time to cut back on hyper-expensive weaponry? Can’t we stop feeding the military-industrial complex?

Instead, House Republicans have done everything they can think of to protect current rates of military spending. Mitt Romney, for his part, campaigned on a promise to build more warships. Please remember that the Pentagon accounts for about 30 percent of federal spending.

Then there are those pesky retirement programs — Social Security and Medicare. House Republicans supported Paul Ryan’s plan to change Medicare to a voucher program, but they did so knowing that it would never see the light of day. If they were so proud of it, why didn’t Ryan campaign on it when he was Romney’s running mate?

Instead, the Romney-Ryan team denounced Obama for making cuts to Medicare. The party that claims the mantle of fiscal responsibility shamelessly pandered to its aging base by blaming Obama for trying to rein in one of the costliest government programs.

Democrats have their own soul-searching ahead on Social Security and Medicare, which cannot be sustained without tax increases, benefit cuts or a combination of the two. (Let me rush to say here that Social Security is a much easier fix. Just hike the payroll tax for people earning more than $114,000 a year.) Medicare costs, especially, are growing at an alarming rate as baby boomers retire.

Still, Tea Partiers — the core of support for arch-conservatives in Congress — aren’t keen on cutting Medicare, polls show. Many of them seem to believe that cutting spending means only cutting that which goes to other people, not to them. Indeed, political science research shows a sharp racial edge underlying those sentiments, with racially resentful whites likely to favor cuts to programs, such as Head Start, which they associate with the “undeserving” poor.

After winning the gavel as House Speaker again last week, John Boehner said the “American dream is in peril” because of debt and pledged to reduce it. As another budget brawl nears — a debt-ceiling fight will be upon us in a couple of months — you’ll hear Republicans frequently claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility.

There is no reason to believe them.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

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