The comparative study of debt and fiscal consolidation has acquired a new focus in the wake of the global financial crisis. This paper re-evaluates the literature on fiscal consolidation that flourished during the 1980s and 1990s. The conventional approach to explanation is based on segmenting episodes of fiscal change into discrete observations. We argue that this misses the dynamic features of government strategy, especially in the choices made between expenditure-based and revenue-based fiscal consolidation strategies. We propose a focus on pathways rather than episodes of adjustment, to capture what Pierson terms ‘politics in time’. A case-study approach facilitates analysis of complex causality that includes the structures of interest intermediation, the role of ideas in shaping the set of feasible policy choices, and the situation of national economies in the international political economy. We support our argument with qualitative data based on two case studies, Ireland and Greece, and with additional paired comparisons of Ireland with Britain, and Greece with Spain. Our conclusions suggest that the conventional literature, by excluding key political variables from consideration, may distort our understanding and result in misleading policy prescription.