If either party does half of what it says it's going to do about the budget deficit, the public is going to be furious. That's the clear message, if there is one, from all the recent public-opinion polls. The public isn't that concerned about the budget deficit—it would prefer that politicians spend money on jobs first. When asked whether they support some of the ideas that might shrink the deficit, substantial majorities say no.
And yet politicians keep talking about how they're going to force this bag of unpleasantness on the unwanting public. President Obama says cutting the deficit will be his main focus for the next two years. Republicans giddy from big election wins are anxious to start carving up the bloated federal government.
That said, Republicans appear to be facing a larger gap between what they're planning to do and what the public actually wants. They are promising to shrink the size of government profoundly. Incoming House Speaker John Boehner has promised an "adult conversation" about entitlements. This all sounds very painful, and polls suggest the public doesn't like it. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 45 percent said they wanted more spending to create jobs. Only 32 percent said the highest priority should be reducing the deficit. In other polls, the number was lower. A recent CBS poll showed that only 4 percent cared about the deficit.
People aren't desperate to go on a diet, so they're not willing to embrace any plans to shrink the buffet. According to a recent NBC poll, 70 percent of Americans say they would rather not cut programs like Medicare, Social Security, and defense. Fifty-seven percent said they were uncomfortable with increasing the Social Security retirement age to 69 over the next 60 years. A recent CNN poll showed that people are extremely reluctant to cut any big areas of the federal budget. Faced with the choice of cutting a program to reduce the deficit or protecting the program from cuts, 79 percent opposed cuts to Medicare, and 69 percent wanted to protect Medicaid. On Social Security, the equivalent figure was 78 percent. Sixty percent or more favored protecting aid to farmers, college loans, and unemployment assistance. The country is split evenly on cutting defense spending. What do people want to cut? Government salaries, "welfare," and the arts, which, depending on how you figure it, represent around 10 percent of the budget.
Faced with such opposition, politicians usually get cold feet about touching the portions of the budget people favor. Former President Bush describes in Decision Points what happened when he tried to do this. Democrats opposed him only, and few in his own party supported him. "This is not a popular issue. Taking on Social Security will cost us seats," a House Republican leader told him. In the end, Bush says, "I needed strong Republican backing to get a Social Security bill through Congress. I didn't have it."
There are some popular steps Congress can take, but they don't do much to solve the problem. For example: On Thursday, the GOP voted to do away with earmarks. ""This earmark ban shows the American people we are listening," said Boehner. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell flipped his position and supported the measure, saying that he was listening to the voters.
This is worth pausing over. Once upon a time, Mitch McConnell delighted in bucking popular opinion. He was always against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, for instance. Even when limits on campaign contributions received majority support in the public, he stood proudly against the tide. Yet it took him all of 14 days after the election to change his position on earmarks.
While the budget choices are only getting harder, Republicans seem to be wedding themselves increasingly to the popular will. In the House, GOP leaders are turning legislation into a reality show they call "YouCut." Every week, they will hold an Internet contest to select an item that should be removed from the budget. Whatever people pick, House Republicans will bring up for a vote. Today the target was funding for NPR. (It failed. Democrats are still the majority for a moment.)
When politicians can't be in front of a parade of public opinion, they sometimes try to convince a reluctant public that something is a good idea. Obama tried to do this with health care, and it didn't work out. When he couldn't sell it before the legislation passed, he tried to sell it after the fact. (That's what Nancy Pelosi meant when she said people would only know what was in the bill once it had passed. Republicans used that comment to kick Pelosi around for a few months.) The public didn't buy this approach, either.
Republicans' most powerful political argument against the president was that he was ignoring public opinion, which, in the Republican formulation, was a reckless and arrogant thing to do. But having used this so effectively to pin down the president—and having ceded ever more of their legislating direction to the popular will—the Republican Party now finds itself caught between the conflicting demands of an ambivalent public.
One way around this dilemma is to simply assert the public is behind you whether it is or isn't. It's a neat trick, ignoring public opinion while using it to sell your positions. Rep. Mike Pence is trying to pull it off when he argues for extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone permanently. "We've got the American people on our side," he says. The polls don't agree. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent of the public either wants the Bush tax cuts extended for only those families making less than $250,000 or not extended at all. A recent NBC poll found the same result. So did the exit polls on Election Day.
The more common practice for a politician in Pence's position—when he has to do something more astringent than hand out lollipops—is to get out the theme music and say he's doing it on principle. (That's what Bush did with Social Security reform). Alternatively, he can pretend he alone has some special ability to divine the will of the American people.
So how will Republicans get out of the box into which they've packaged themselves? They may try to do what Obama was incapable of: convince the public to do something it doesn't want to do. They could get the president's help in this; he says he shares their goal of reducing the national debt. But the question is whether either side will be willing to show its hand. The first party to announce support for an unpopular reduction may get stuck with the blame. One way around this problem is trust: If each side trusts the other, then it matters less which side goes first. But in Washington right now, the trust deficit almost matches the fiscal one.