Deficit Public Opinion Goes Missing

We’ve been reading that lots of people that matter are not happy with developments in those deficit reductions talks.

But what about the people that make them matter? Where’s public opinion on all of this?

Why, they’re unhappy too!—but not for the same reason that no-new-revenue Republican Eric Cantor is.

You wouldn’t know this from the media coverage—from which discussion of public opinion has been almost completely absent—but data suggests that deficit discussions on the Hill have unfolded in precisely the way a majority of American voters don’t want. (By the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll count, Republicans and Democrats are neck-and-neck in how badly they’re doing on reducing the debt.)

Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University who specializes in the role of public opinion in American politics, notes public opinion has not been part of the story.

“Political leaders haven’t been talking about it,” explains Shapiro, and reporters rarely bring up public opinion unless prompted by the political conversation or, he adds, a specific poll, which typically draw coverage only for a single news cycle.

Meanwhile the deficit has become a definite concern among the public because “it has been front and center in the political debate,” says Shapiro. “It ranks pretty high as one of the most important problems facing the nation.” Indeed concern about the deficit has been rising among the public—and by Pew’s count 74% rank it as a problem demanding immediate attention.

Yet, when polled about how to fix the deficit problem, the public favors a set of solutions that Eric Cantor would walk away from.

“There are things the public is willing to support—cuts to defense, taxing the rich,” says Shapiro, adding that the public is “pretty protective when it comes to Medicare and Social Security.”

In a national survey by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, from late May 2011, a majority of those polled supported taxing the rich, eliminating corporate tax breaks, and cutting foreign and defense spending abroad. A majority disapproved of reducing Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age, and taxing health insurance. Also unpopular by were cuts to funding for state education and infrastructure budgets (73% disapproval) and cuts to programs for lower-income Americans (54%).

These figures are especially noteworthy—and perhaps worth a mention—when framing coverage of negotiations where Republicans refuse to consider tax increases and defense cuts. Or when, President Obama throws Social Security reform and the retirement age on the table.

Bruce Bartlett, a columnist for The Fiscal Times and Tax Notes, made this point on his Capital Gains and Games blog by linking to 19 separate polls conducted this year that say so. “Contrary to Republican dogma, polls show the American people strongly support higher taxes to reduce the deficit and improve income inequality,” he writes.

Indeed, the public reveals itself to be of much more compromising spirit than its politicians and as in this recent Washington Post/ABC Poll, largely supportive of reducing the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

It is true that when given a choice between generic spending cuts and tax increases, people prefer spending cuts. But when asked about specific spending cuts—particularly to the entitlement programs that make up a bulk of the federal budget—people would rather raise taxes (or screw the deficit). Americans are steadfast and united, almost more than anything else, in wanting to protect their Social Security and Medicare benefits.

So, why do lawmakers feel so free to disregard the wishes of their constituents? Because they can.

Shapiro, who with Lawrence R. Jacobs, wrote a book, Politicians Don’t Pander on the subject, explains it is not unusual for public opinion to be left out of the political conversation—particularly with complex issues and between elections.

“Political leaders, to their credit, have policy and ideological goals and objectives that they want to reach. It’s between elections that they have some wiggle room to do that and to not be immediately accountable to the public on each issue position they take,” said Shapiro.

“If we were closer to an election we may see the role of public opinion play out a bit more, but right now, we’re really dealing with an ideological political battle.”

But just because politicians aren’t worrying about what the public wants right now doesn’t mean their priorities should be left out of the conversation entirely.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.