The change I sense is that the GOP is trying to scale back its demands. That's not surprising since they lost the election. However, they didn't scale back their demands in December, or on the basis of pollling all during 2011-2. At first after the election, they still tried to maintain the Bush tax cuts, then tried to maintain all the tax rates, before they finally gave in. Then they vowed to get as many spending cuts as they could in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
A common thread here is what I'll call a "maximalist position." The GOP seems to aim for the biggest payoff they can get. That's normal, I suppose, but contrast that with the Dems, who gave in on tax increases in August 2011, and readily allowed the higher threshold for tax increases during the fiscal cliff negotiations. The Dems haven't held up for the maximum return.
Why are the GOP working to hard to extract the maximum they can from their position? I have a theory. Most of the GOP converted very late to fiscal conservatism, like in the second half of 2008. Having wasted so much time, including their own period of political hegemony (House, Senate, presidency), they had to quadruple their efforts to cut back government.
If this sounds like I'm trying to mock the GOP (and I think it could be interpreted that way), you'll have to take my word that I'm not mocking them. I sincerely believe there was a realization among conservatives that they had slept through their chance to streamline government, but they were awake now, and want to make up for that missed opportunity.
So small government talk went into overdrive. Maintaining the Bush tax cuts and lowering government spending were twin objectives. However, on the spending side there had been a lot of ground lost, with the budget doubling between 2000 and 2009. That can largely explain the desperation of the GOP to fight all spending and to emphasize spending cuts.
My theory has its flaws. Many Republicans don't seem to mind defense spending, and even supported higher defense spending. Increased spending on Medicare wasn't attacked, and savings were criticized instead. The GOP may want spending cuts, but not enough to actually detail what they should be. Frankly, there are a lot of holes in my theory. Perhaps fiscal discipline is only a campaign cry for the GOP. However, there is something about the intensity of the desire to cut spending that this theory captures.
In contrast, some conservatives, in particular Charles Krauthammer, are talking about lowering their sights and trying for fewer cuts. Part of the idea is partisan, to let the Democrats run wild and expose how much they'd love to spend. But another thread may be that some in the GOP are recalibrating what they can achieve, and backing away from the maximalist position. Perhaps if they try to do less, they'll actually succeed in gaining more of their agenda in the near future and in future elections. That would be ironic, to achieve more by aiming for less.
Extra. Another time I thought the political scene was changing. I was wrong then, but it was fascinating how much did change, but not as I predicted.