Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Public Opinion Isn't Forcing Spending Cuts

Greg Sargent earlier today emphasized the extent to which a new CNN poll shows that Republicans have won the message wars on government spending; he cites similar sentiments from Kevin Drum and Jared Bernstein. I disagree! As John Sides said months ago, “The GOP has promised to cut and Obama seems willing to go along, at least to some extent. But the public won’t provide them much incentive.”

The CNN poll only asks about spending in general (“do you approve or disapprove of the cuts in government spending”). But we know that when it comes to questions such as this, public opinion is inconsistent: people regularly report supporting cuts in overall government spending, while supporting increased spending on most individual programs, and on most categories of programs. Spending bad; spending on education, veterans, Social Security, health care, infrastructure, the military, and all the other individual things that government actually does? Good.

Of course – and here I think Greg and I probably agree -- it’s also true that public opinion tends to follow partisan cues, and given that the president publicly supported a larger deficit reduction deal with more spending cuts (and some tax increases), while Republicans support lots of spending cuts, it’s hardly a surprise that public opinion favors more spending cuts.  One sign of that? I wouldn’t make too much of internal splits in one poll, but it’s fascinating that Democrats supported the cuts in the deal much more (68/28) than did independents (60/35). The possible answer to that is that people who think of themselves as Democrats are also more likely to adopt the views of a Democratic president, regardless of what else they believe. And the president certainly did lend rhetorical support to the idea that cutting spending to achieve fiscal responsibility is a good idea, much to the (quite justified) dismay of liberals. But regardless, I don’t think it’s news that people like spending cuts in the abstract.

What I do think is worth noting is that the GOP position on taxes isn’t particularly popular, with 60% of respondents saying the deal should have included “tax increases for business or higher-income Americans.” That’s not new, but it is remarkable how scared many Democratic politicians have been to embrace that populist message. In my view, it’s not because of their own policy preferences or (as some say) the effects of wealthy donors on policy positions; I think it’s really because many Democratic politicians simply don’t believe it. Perhaps it’s a residue of the 1994 Republican landslide (when Republicans ran against Democratic tax increases); I don’t know. But I do think that if liberal activists could convince marginal Democratic politicians that a soak-the-rich position would be both good policy and good politics, it would indeed make some difference.

But the finding that people like aggregate spending cuts? Not a problem. When Democrats are unpopular (as in 2010) for other reasons, then people will listen to Republican politicians, and those politicians are going to talk about spending cuts, which people are predisposed to like. When Republicans are unpopular (as in 2006 and 2008) for other reasons, people will listen to Democrats, and will think in terms of wanting increased spending on all those programs they like. That does mean that it’s probably foolish of Obama to praise spending cuts! But it doesn’t mean that public opinion about the size of government is a constraint on reaching spending levels that liberals want.


  1. You're right that the public likes the idea of spending cuts in the aggregate. And that's exactly what they got in this bill: Vague top-line caps with no specific cuts.

  2. We cannot have a functioning democracy if the people are uninformed and if the media refuses to do its job in that regard. And here we have another classic example of how the media failed the American people, by basically creating this phony debt "crisis" when 6-8 months ago if you asked anyone in the USA they'd have told you the #1 issue was jobs.

    There was an interesting discussion about this on Thom Hartmann's show today, with FAIR's Jeff Cohen. You can watch it here, it's not long.

  3. There’s pretty much a consensus in favor of spending cuts and this poll seems to support that. As to your point that people do not genuinely support the cuts, but are instead blindly following their leaders -- I don‘t know why you would say that. When, fresh from an electoral victory, Bush pushed Social Security reform, people didn’t blindly follow him, did they? The same goes for the ACA, which voters didn’t blindly accept either. Our leaders say or do something and people decide if they agree or not -- that’s how politics works, even if we don’t always like the outcome.

  4. SB,

    I disagree with that pretty strongly. I don't think that democracy requires informed and engaged citizens. I'm for citizen participation, but I don't think it's necessary. Which (IMO of course) is good, because otherwise democracy is impossible in the real world.


    I strongly disagree. On most issues, most of us do follow the opinion leaders we like. Almost all Dems like ACA -- but if Obama had embraced single payer and the Republicans pushed ACA, almost all Democrats would have hated ACA. I'm not going to go back and look, but I bet large majorities of Republicans backed Bush on SS. And there's nothing wrong with that! We don't have time to learn the details of all these policies (well, normal people, who aren't reading blogs like this, that is). For issues on which we have expertise or special concern, that's not true, but for more most of us on most issues, we're happy enough to adopt the views of people who we've learned to trust.

  5. Jonathan, you said that people generally follow the policies of the party that's popular at the time. If so, then why didn't people unquestioningly follow Social Security reform and the ACA?

  6. How do you square this post with your article at Salon on a potential Hilary presidency, in which you note that "One could just as easily argue that the Democratic Party has been strongly in favor of fiscal conservativism since 1982, or perhaps since the Carter administration. If that’s the case, and I think it is, then Obama is basically just doing what Clinton or most other Democrats would do."

    Assuming that "fiscal conservativism" is a synonym for "spending cuts," do you believe that the public/democrats do or don't see such conservativism as a priority? Not being willing to create a Salon membership, and thinking you may have posted a copy here, I came by to basically respond to the excerpt I quoted above with the post that it seems you've already written...

  7. Anon,

    Fiscal conservativism isn't, or at least hasn't until recently, been a synonym for spending cuts. Traditionally, being a fiscal conservative meant favoring balanced budgets, regardless of how you get there. I do think that most Dems favor balanced budgets over time (and most conservatives are indifferent to them).

  8. Relying on cuts alone to resolve our economic issues is like relying on a fad diet to lose weigh--if you're committed, you might see a little improvement, but within a short time you're back where you started. To reduce the deficit we need to increase revenue. Creating jobs and educating workers increases tax revenues. Tax breaks for the wealthy have failed to deliver the promised growth and opportunity, so it falls back on government investment. We either borrow the needed cash from the bankers, oil men and other wealthy, or we take it from them. Since the upper 15% have been doing very nicely for the past decade, I say we take it.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?