Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 1, 2011

THE LIMITS OF PUBLIC OPINION.... A Gallup poll released Friday asked a question that seems pertinent to the fiscal fight in Washington. The question read:

"As you may know, Congress can reduce the federal budget deficit by cutting spending, raising taxes, or a combination of the two. Ideally, how would you prefer to see Congress attempt to reduce the federal budget deficit -- only with spending cuts, mostly with spending cuts, equally with spending cuts and tax increases, mostly with tax increases, or only with tax increases?"

The results were all over the place, and varied widely by party affiliation. Overall, a 37% plurality supports the balanced approach, 28% wants "mostly" spending cuts, and 20% wants "only" spending cuts. Only 9% wants "mostly" tax increases, while 2% backs "only" tax increases.

Matt Yglesias noted in response, "Of course this raises the question of whether people really mean this, which I doubt."

So do I. In fact, it's pretty safe to assume folks don't mean this at all, and the evidence is overwhelming that asking the question this way -- i.e., asking whether Americans want to reduce the deficit through "spending cuts" -- is almost certain to generate results that tell us nothing.

It's one of the most consistent truths in all of politics: Americans, when asked, love the idea of spending cuts in the abstract. Those same Americans, when pressed, hate the idea of spending cuts in specific.

We know this in part because Gallup has told us. Just a few months ago, the pollster found most of the country balked at the notion of cuts to education, Social Security, Medicare, programs for the poor, national defense, homeland security, aid to farmers, and funding for the arts and sciences. A month later, a Bloomberg poll found that most Americans don't want to see budget cuts to education, community renewal programs, medical and scientific research, or public television and public radio. A month ago today, a CNN poll showed most Americans want to see spending go up, not down, in many key areas of the budget.

What cuts are popular? Foreign aid is a perennial favorite, but other than that, practically no cuts enjoy public support.

Polls that simply ask about "spending cuts" offer results with no meaningful value. Something to keep in mind.

Steve Benen 10:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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Comments

I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that this might be a potential argument that the Dems could use to some effect.

Specifically, to turn the Repub argument about responsibility around on them. Isn't it rather irresponsible to fool the public into this idea that they can get something for nothing. People want roads without potholes. People want a good education system. People want to know that if there's a disaster that they will receive help.

Now certainly there are some Repubs who would simply say that the free market will handle all of this or that individuals should pay these costs directly rather than being taxed. However, there are quite a few Repubs that rely on people being easily fooled that they can get their goodies and not have to pay for them. Probably because they will simply cut the goodies for those other people or somehow the magic of trickle down economics will take care of it.

Obviously, that won't fit on a bumper sticker, but there has to be a relatively simple way top explain to people that if they want the services provided by the government then they will have to pay taxes.

Posted by: DK on May 1, 2011 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

Team spirit and name recognition.

That's polling, or 90% of it anyways.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on May 1, 2011 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

Dk, how about this? "Small government=more potholes".

Posted by: Athena on May 1, 2011 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

Reality shows have poisoned America's ability to think. The Donald dropped several F-bombs in a speech and the applause was deafening; Obama goes tieless in the Oval and he is unfit for office.

I need a new car, so I polled 100 random citizens on color choice. 45% said White, 45% said Black, 8% said Other, and 2% said a Bicycle. . .

Posted by: DAY on May 1, 2011 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK

The debt-deficit discourse will not improve until news and polling organizations (not to mention Democrats) begin to understand that "spending" is not a neutral term. It reinforces right-wing characterizations of "tax-and-spend" government and completely obliterates the idea of appropriate funding for necessary functions.

Posted by: JM on May 1, 2011 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

THE WORM HAS TURNED

Asked about the Ryan plan, Boehner now tells ABC News:

It’s Pauls idea. Other people have other ideas. I’m not whetted to one single idea.

Ah, didn’t Boehner and almost every other Republican VOTE FOR the legislation that passed the House which would enact the Ryan plan into law ?

Now it’s suddenly just an “idea” ?

They’re on the run.


Posted by: Joe Friday on May 1, 2011 at 12:52 PM | PERMALINK

the question is stupid. Who feels the cuts and who gets the tax increases makes all the difference in the world to the answer. Those answering no to tax increases almost assuredly me no tax increases for 'me', but could give a crap about tax increases for someone else. Same for spending cuts: no to those affecting 'me', but fine and dandy for those affecting others.

Posted by: pluege on May 1, 2011 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not whetted to one single idea.

"Wedded," probably.

Posted by: Swift Loris on May 1, 2011 at 1:17 PM | PERMALINK

I swear most Americans think the federal budget is 90% foreign aid.

Posted by: Speed on May 1, 2011 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

News flash: people don't like government spending, unless it's on them. Also, dog bites man.

Or, to look at the taxation side: Don't tax me; don't tax he; tax the fellow behind that tree!

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on May 1, 2011 at 3:46 PM | PERMALINK

"... . Foreign aid is a perennial favorite, but other than that, practically no cuts enjoy public support."

And even foreign aid almost certainly would be supported, if you were to put the question in terms of aid to specific countries. E.g., Israel.

Posted by: RonG on May 1, 2011 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

I think we all have to take a deep breath, and stop taking the guidance of polls conducted on people who know nothing of the issues facing the country or the details of how government works.

Posted by: Jamie on May 1, 2011 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

I really, really wish that the people making up the questions on these surveys would include follow up questions to explain the general questions. The obvious questions to follow the one under consideration is what would you want cut? What taxes would you want raised?

In the case of opposition to the health care reform or of support for Ryan's budget, the follow up questions should be something on the order of which of the following is part of the ACA or Ryan's budget?

Posted by: Texas Aggie on May 2, 2011 at 12:09 AM | PERMALINK

Note the assumption in the survey question. It assumes the US needs to immediately lower the deficit. This is counter to any sane macroeconomic policy, but it's telling that almost no one thinks to challenge it. Not even the party of the New Deal.

Posted by: Tom Allen on May 2, 2011 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK
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