Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 13, 2010

DEFICIT, SCHMEFICIT.... A CBS News poll released this week asked Americans what they'd like to see Congress focus on next year. The clear winner was "economy/jobs," cited by 56% of respondents. Health care was a distant second at 14%. The deficit, the wars, immigration, taxes, and education were all mentioned, but their results were in the low single digits.

Of course, the public will not get its wish. Economic growth and job creation should be the focus, but Republicans, with their new House majority, have already made clear that their top priorities are fairly low priorities for the American mainstream -- gutting the health care system, protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, and reducing the deficit. (Yes, those are contradictory goals, since gutting health care and cutting taxes would make the deficit much worse.)

The larger point to remember, though, is a truth the political world often forgets: deficit reduction is a political loser because people really don't care. Steve Kornacki had a very good item on this the other day.

Sure, you can find polls that show an unusually high number of Americans expressing concerns about deficits and the debt, but this sentiment is explained by two phenomena: (1) Republican voters (and functionally Republican "independents") echoing their party leaders (and right-wing talk show hosts and activists), who identified the debt as a political weapon to use against Obama from the earliest days of his presidency; and (2) Authentic swing voters (that is, the small share of registered independents who really do swing back-and-forth between the parties) pointing to the debt as a top worry because their intense economic anxiety has made them receptive to the GOP's doomsday warnings about runaway deficits.

So, let's say that Obama actually did embrace Simpson-Bowles and got it enacted. Would this "restore his cred with Independents"? Not at all. First, as noted above, a significant chunk of the "independents" who are worried about the debt are actually functional Republicans -- that is, they vote Republican in election after election but like to call themselves "independent." These voters would not suddenly give Obama credit for tackling the deficit; they'd simply follow along with whatever line top GOP leaders and activists came up with in response. As for the "real" independents, the small chunk who aren't functionally part of either party, their debt/deficit fears are driven mainly by economic anxiety, so they'd only give Obama credit if the economy simultaneously improved.

And since focusing on deficit reduction generally happens at the expense of growth, the goal would be counter-productive anyway.

The track record here is pretty consistent -- Reagan was the father of the modern deficit, and no one cared. When Mondale tried to make deficit reduction central to his '84 campaign, he lost 49 states. Clinton was the father of modern deficit reduction, but no one much cared about that, either, and by the time he left office after two terms, much of the country didn't even realize he'd completely eliminated the deficit and had begun paying off the debt. George W. Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history, but on the long list of Bush's failures, most Americans don't even consider the $5 trillion he added to the debt. Obama has actually reduced the deficit over the last year, but no one actually hears deficit hawks praising him for it.

Voters want the economy to grow. They want more jobs. If they actually cared about the deficit, they'd be outraged by the notion of a new round of tax cuts (they're not), and supportive of measures like the Simpson/Bowles plan (they're really not).

It's not altogether clear people even know what the deficit is. For many, it's likely that the deficit is just something that's "bad." Indeed, given that deficit concerns tend to coincide with economic downturns, some folks might see a correlation -- the deficit is high and the economy is bad, they figure, so maybe if the deficit were lower the economy might get better.

All of this is nonsense, of course, but it's worth remembering when various political players suggest policymakers' popularity is riding on deficit reduction. It's not.

Steve Benen 10:30 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (25)

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Comments

That pretty much sums it up. The Tea Baggers didn't care about the deficit until they were told they should. That's where this current deficit panic started.

Posted by: Varecia on November 13, 2010 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

Brilliant analysis, very well done.

Posted by: Jan in Stone Mtn on November 13, 2010 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

t's not altogether clear people even know what the deficit is.

I'm absolutely convinced this is true, and they don't know the difference between the deficit and the national debt, either. I bet if you drilled down you'd find that plenty of people think "I owe money, everybody I know owes money, and that's 'the deficit' [or debt because they're the same, right?]". If you think of it that way, "lower taxes to eliminate the deficit" makes perfect sense, because we'll all have more money when we pay less in taxes, right? So the deficit will be lower, right?

Posted by: DonBoy on November 13, 2010 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

Let's be honest. The Republican sole goal is to have a Republican President and Congress in 2012. To accomplish that, they have to make sure that unemployment remains high, and the economy drags along slowly, but without a catostrophic failure - thought that would be ok too, if it served their purpose.
They'll do what they do so well - they'll divert the public attention away from the fact that the last thing on their list is what's first on the publics - JOBS!!! And they will move Hell and high water to NOT make job creation a reality. PERIOD!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on November 13, 2010 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

I think The Big Lie of this past election cycle is that it was about "the deficit". What the tea partiers and Republicans in general are really upset about, but don't have the balls to come out and say, is the idea that their tax dollars might be spent to benefit non-members of the white heterosexual Christian tribe.

Posted by: DelCapslock on November 13, 2010 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

They'll do what they do so well - they'll divert the public attention away from the fact that the last thing on their list is what's first on the publics - JOBS!!! And they will move Hell and high water to NOT make job creation a reality. PERIOD!!!!!!!!!
Posted by: c u n d gulag

The next 2 years encapsulated in a perfect nutshell.

If Democrat operatives were smart (they're not) they'd repeat ad nauseum the need for house Republicans to stop ridiculous political witch hunts (which they will) and focus "like a laser beam" on job creation without deficit spending (i.e. NO tax cuts = revenue bullshit)............And adopt the pompous "the American people want ____________" and "the American people don't want ____________" that Republicans use so well.

Over and over and over. All of them for the next two years.
1. "The House is the brainstorming branch of government where laws are generated and passed up. The Republicans must now offer job creation ideas."
2. "The American people want the Republican controlled House to get unemployment below 6% again."
3. "The American people don't want commissions and subpoenas they want jobs."
4. "Tax cuts for millionaires will create more yachts and country club memberships but the American people want jobs not more golf courses."

You get the picture.

Posted by: AndThenThere'sThat on November 13, 2010 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

It's not altogether clear people even know what the deficit is.

Very true. A few months back, I got into a lengthy argument about the deficit with a friend on Facebook, a highly educated friend with a Business degree. His arguments were completely incoherent until I realized that he was discussing the budget deficit, the trade deficit, and the National Debt interchangeably, with no idea that they were all different things. Again, this was a guy with a Business degree. I can't imagine how 60-year-old Teabaggers mangle these issues, particularly with Fox propaganda deliberately meant to deceive them.

Posted by: Citizen Alan on November 13, 2010 at 12:17 PM | PERMALINK

These repub dittohead lemmings teabaggers, including the elected ones, sprinkled with some dimwitted dems, don't know the difference between weather and climate, debt and deficit, and of course, truth and fiction.
The world is flat. The moon is made of cheese. I'm rich, you're not because you live on hand-outs from the government and You.Are.Not.White.

Posted by: Schtick on November 13, 2010 at 12:21 PM | PERMALINK

The wants and needs of the American people are running agound on the sand bar of reality. Keep printing money. It will work sooner or later,maybe?

Posted by: EC Sedgwick on November 13, 2010 at 12:22 PM | PERMALINK

"Clinton was the father of modern deficit reduction, but no one much cared about that, either, and by the time he left office after two terms, much of the country didn't even realize he'd completely eliminated the deficit and had begun paying off the debt."
I do not know where you obtain your iformation, but at best it is unreliable

Posted by: EC Sedgwick on November 13, 2010 at 12:31 PM | PERMALINK

I'd just like to remind everyone of the painful fact that Greenspan testified to congress, under oath, that the entire debt owed by the United States would be entirely paid off by 2007 if no tax cuts were passed.

Now look at us.

Posted by: Kiweagle on November 13, 2010 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

And Obama's problem is that he constantly acts to enable the Republicans oppose job stimulus, use budget deficits an an excuse to do nothing, etc., etc. The sooner he goes so that a Chamberlain-like Democrat is replaced by a Churchill-like Democrat the better off the country will be. If the batshit-crazy House Repoubs vote to impeach BHO for whatever reason [typical logic: He wears pink BVDs and is therefore a Commie pinko?]-- Senate Dems should surprise them and suddenly vote aye.

Lets see if Biden has the pair that BHO lost since being elected. And don't give me BS about that makes a joke of the political process. Have you, like BHO, not recognized that is what has happened forv 18 months? The insanity proposed herein might be the most sane thing thev Dems have done in two years.

Posted by: gdb on November 13, 2010 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

That poll was unusual in that it offered up another place for free-floating anxiety about economic uncertainty to alight, namely "Economy/Jobs".

When it or something like is not provided, 'The Deficit' becomes the proxy for free-floating anxiety about economic uncertainty.

What the questions are, again, turns out to be at least as important as what the answers are.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on November 13, 2010 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

The message needs to be repeated throughout the media that our economic crisis arises because of a demand problem, not the deficit. People must be reminded that federal debt doesn't work the way personal debt does: there are instruments the government can (and does) use to manage interest and buffer against inflation.

As long as we have this kind of capitalist system, deficit spending in order to stimulate demand -- and lots of it -- is a rational response, with the deficit serving temporarily as a support beam, if you will.

It must be repeated over and over again.

Posted by: Algernon on November 13, 2010 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

"Of course, the public will not get its wish."

It might not get its wish, but it will get what it deserves for voting for these jackasses. And so will the crybabies who stayed home rather than voting for the lesser of two evils.

Posted by: 400 metres on November 13, 2010 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

EC Sedgwick,

"Clinton was the father of modern deficit reduction, but no one much cared about that, either, and by the time he left office after two terms, much of the country didn't even realize he'd completely eliminated the deficit and had begun paying off the debt."

I do not know where you obtain your iformation, but at best it is unreliable

Au Contraire.

According to the independent non-partisan Congressional Budget Office:

1998 - $069 billion SURPLUS
1999 - $126 billion SURPLUS
2000 - $236 billion SURPLUS
2001 - $128 billion SURPLUS

Additionally, about $600 billion of the federal debt run up by Reagan/Poppy Bush had been paid down.


Posted by: Joe Friday on November 13, 2010 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Davis X. Machina is right. There are a lot of people who seem to believe the following: "the economy" was bad, so when Obama spent money to do "bailouts" and create social programs, he created new debt that we can't afford, making "the economy" worse. When "the economy" isn't working, businesses don't have enough money to hire people, ergo Obama's spending has hurt "the economy" and hasn't "created jobs."

In other words, if you think "the deficit" is one of the leading causes of the failures of "the economy," you might not see those two survey options as all that distinct. The link between "the economy" and "the deficit" is all tangled up in people's minds, partly from disinformation and partly from mistaken but seemingly common-sensical analogies between the national economy, government spending, and individual economic activity.

Which is to say that people might not _say_ they care about "the deficit" as a first-order concern, but if you asked them _why_ the economy was bad, a lot of their answers (Citizen Alan suggests something similar above) would actually be narratives about "the deficit."

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on November 13, 2010 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Great post. You also could have added George H.W. Bush, who was made a pariah for daring to actually close his predecessor's deficits.

I really see the disowning by the emerging New Right of their own president for raising taxes in the national interest as the dawn of the age of crazy.

Posted by: DavidG on November 13, 2010 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

"I really see the disowning by the emerging New Right of their own president for raising taxes in the national interest as the dawn of the age of crazy."

I think this is right.

There are segments of society absolutely hysterical over the idea of deficits and lower taxes. They don't seem to be exactly the same people, more like partially overlapping groups with the same obsession with smaller government. The lower taxes faction bailed on Bush 1 when he raised taxes to reduce the deficit.

While it is a good thing to address problems before they reach crisis proportions, it is peculiar that people are so set on 'fixing' Social Security that they worry about 2050 and 2080 NOW during an economic downturn. It looks to me like they are exploiting the present economic anxiety for their own political agenda.

Obama's (and Democrats in general) greatest failure is not loudly and repeatedly arguing that deficits are properly used to stimulate the economy in bad times. The time for government frugality is in good economic times.

Posted by: Seould on November 13, 2010 at 5:50 PM | PERMALINK

It has been clear from the beginning that none of those yelling about the deficit care about it even if they knew what it is. All the crocodile tears about their yet to be conceived grand children mean nothing, because if they were really concerned about the debts being passed on to future generations you would think at least one of the Tea People would suggest paying a little more in taxes in order to save the kiddies. Their real motive is to cut the budget in order to punish people they don't like such as non-Whites, the poor and women. Also they fancy that they just might shrink the American government so it can be drowned in a bath tub. The word 'deficit' channels all the hatred Tea Partiers have towards the American government and the majority of Americans.

Posted by: Luschnig on November 13, 2010 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

"Deficit" in a tea-party context means "wasteful spending on lazy moochers." They think that the government takes their money, which they worked hard for, and gives it to someone who hasn't worked as hard. Note how they never seem to see themselves as the recipients or beneficiaries of the government's spending money -- only the suckers getting rooked. "The deficit" is the tab left behind for "welfare" or "socialism." A huge number of people who care about "the deficit" think about it in those terms.

Posted by: FlipYrWhig on November 13, 2010 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, it DOESN'T MATTER if "people don't really care" about deficit reduction. The Republicans ran upon it, and now it would politically be very smart to jam it down their throats.

Because you really don't have another manipulable issue.

And do not underestimate the power of this issue to teach the public how intellectually corrupt the Republicans are.

It is much better politics for now to COMPEL the Republicans to come up with the spending cuts to cover their tax cuts. They have been squirming on camera for months, and we should make them squirm for at least another year, until it sinks in to every bonehead.

Keep the focus on the Republicans' inability to name spending cuts to match their tax cuts. Defend the safety-net, demand universal health care, advocate the responsible shaving of long-term deficits in a responsible manner, and insist that Congress sticks to Paygo.

The Democrats will be in a much stronger position in the near future if they just stand still, and defend these faits accomplis.

Because Steve, your contention that "Economic growth and job creation should be the focus" will no longer go anywhere.

First, There is NO universally accepted evidence that anyone knows how to "fix the economy". Far from it: any rational proposal will be running head-long into an irrational culture.

Second, there is NO evidence that anything the Democrats could propose, would pass.

Third, there is NO evidence that the Republicans will be standing still. They will have a counter-proposal and they will steal the turf. Their plan won't do much, other than to fill the pockets of the rich, but it will sell well on Fox, and you'll be inundated by gibberish if you even start the conversation.

So avoid it. Take the fight to the Republicans' weak point, instead. Any practical politics must use the issues at hand.

The Democrats should champion the safety net and universal health coverage, while shaving the deficits. Obamacare shaved the long-term deficits 2/3rds. Use this fact. Demand that the Republicans stick to paygo to ensure this result, and insist that they publicly follow the math, insist that they be serious.

It is political suicide for the Democrats to do anything but to KILL the upper class cuts, and to propose a TEMPORARY extension of the middle class cuts (e.g., 3 years). Anything other than this, will make the long-term deficits bigger. No matter how much the liberal cognoscenti whine that deficits really don't matter and that the Republicans really know it, the hoi polloi are changing their attitude. So use this fact.

There is no evidence that the Republicans care about economics, or that they would care to compromise publicly with President Obama. They have walked themselves into an intellectual and moral cul de sac. Use this fact!

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on November 13, 2010 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

IT is a secular sin to even talk about reducing the deficit, which means cutting government spending to Republicans, 1/3 of Arizona kids live in poverty.

the only effect of cutting government spending is to put more people on unemployment which puts more people in poverty. AZ has a terrible job market.

Posted by: KurtRex1453 on November 14, 2010 at 2:45 AM | PERMALINK

The compromise that will shift the conversation and tip public opinion while keeping most of the good.

Create a new tax bracket at $600k for married joint filings, rate = 39.6%

Let the Bush cuts for lower brackets expire.

The mistake is to permit the upper middle class (on the coasts, approx. $200-500k incomes) to stay aligned with the rich. The GOP fears them being split (see, e.g., estate tax debate).

If Obama is truly a jujitsu-esque political strategist who gives his opponents enough rope to hang themselves, and then moves in for the kill (with compromise as a cover/vehicle), this is how he does it.

Posted by: Anselm on November 14, 2010 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

Get rid of the political bribes (campaign contributions) and my politicians will do the right thing. If that means tax breaks for the rich, and they feel the voters will re-elect them, fine. But I want them working for me and not them.

Jack Lohman

http://MoneyedPoliticians.net

Posted by: Jack E Lohman on November 16, 2010 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK
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