Ezra Klein has a nice comment on an Benjamin Sarlin's helpful interview of Pete Peterson, the rich-guy deficit hawk. The politics of deficit reduction have become only more confusing in the last year, and Sarlin and Klein both point to liberal paranoia about Peterson, who liberals tend to see as mainly interested in killing Social Security and Medicare.
Here's the thing: once upon a time, there was such a thing as fiscal conservatives. "Fiscal" was understood to be about the size of the deficit. In the 1950s and 1960s, Keynesian liberals believed in varying the size of the deficit -- increasing it during recessions, and then running surpluses during good times (I said they believed in it, not that they actually did it). Fiscal conservatives, on the other hand, believed that government revenues and spending should always be balanced. Fiscal conservative beliefs did, in fact, tend to correlate with belief in small government, but nevertheless fiscal conservatives really did put balanced budgets first, and therefore supported tax increases as well as spending cuts (and, perhaps most famously, opposed JFK's tax cuts).
The thing is that this kind of fiscal conservative is so rare within the two major parties that no one recognizes it when they see it, and therefore ascribes all sorts of nefarious motives to actual fiscal conservatives (or, as they're more often called now, budget hawks). Indeed, as far as I can tell conservatives aren't even aware of the long tradition of fiscal conservativism in the Republican Party, and don't know that "fiscal conservative" was actually the name for those who supported balanced budgets as a top priority. So liberals see fiscal conservatives as plotting to gut Social Security, and conservatives see them as plotting to raise taxes. What do I think? I take them at face value: they actually think that budget deficits are more important than the size of government, or any particular program, or the level of taxation.
The one question I wish Sarlin had asked is whether Peterson has much of a preference between size of government as long as revenues match spending. My guess is that whatever his personal preferences, as an activist he's basically neutral about that (although he almost certainly believes that it is impossible in a practical sense for revenues to keep up with the more pessimistic long-term projections for Medicare spending).
Personally, I think that making long-term deficit projections a higher priority than avoiding short-term pain is generally a bad idea. But I also think that honest deficit hawks -- real fiscal conservatives -- aren't the worst thing to have around most of the time; democracies are, one would think, biased in favor of short-term results, and so it's not a disaster to have at least one interest group looking out for the long-term. That's only true, however, if deficit reduction pressure is actually neutral about the size of government; otherwise, putative deficit hawks are really just liberals or conservatives in disguise. As far as I can see, however, Peterson is the real deal.