Congressional Republicans believe fervently that they have the backing of the American people to make deep cuts in federal spending. But as poll after poll indicates, they don’t. And if they remain oblivious to that fact, they’re going to end up in deep political trouble.
Ordinarily, that prospect wouldn’t exactly break my heart. However, since more important things are at stake here, such as the nation’s financial stability, I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope they come to their senses and realize that compromise — much as they hate that concept — is essential.
Last month, for example, the Harris Poll asked poll respondents which federal programs they would be willing to cut, echoing similar questions asked by Harris in 1980 and 2008. Here’s what they found:
Harris shows what every poll on the subject shows: Everybody wants to cut foreign aid and foreign military assistance. Fine. The only problem is, we’ll spend a grand total of about $40 billion on those programs this year. Eliminate it altogether — and remember, Israel and Egypt are by far the biggest recipients of such aid — and we’ve achieved almost nothing in terms of reducing the deficit.
Next, take a look at what has happened to our appetite for reduced spending since 1980, the year that Ronald Reagan won office. In every category except one, we are less supportive of spending cuts today than we were 30 years ago. Support for cutting food stamps, for example, has fallen by 25 points. The sole and very interesting exception is defense, where 41 percent of Americans now support spending cuts, an increase o seven percentage points.
Bruce Bartlett, a former Treasury official under Reagan and a voice of fiscal sanity on the right, looks at those numbers and makes an interesting point:
“(The table) suggests that Republicans may have a lot less political capital to play with than they imagine. It also suggests that their strategy of front-loading spending cuts in the fiscal year 2011 is very ill-conceived. They are using up all the political capital they have for cutting spending in a way that is highly unlikely to be successful and that will not yield long-term savings…. By the time they get around to doing something about entitlements, they may find that budget-cutting exhaustion and frustration has set in and there is no support left for big budget cuts. It may be that they have one bite at the budget-cutting apple and they are squandering it.”
That’s a wise observation. For example, in their proposed spending cuts, the House GOP wants to slash the EPA’s budget by 29 percent. However, cutting spending on pollution control is backed by just 37 percent of Americans. A good chunk of that 37 percent may be voters in Republican primaries, which is why Newt Gingrich has proposed abolishing EPA and replacing it with something called the Environmental Solutions Agency. But Americans as a whole aren’t likely to look kindly on that idea.
Most importantly, look at the levels of support for cutting health care (24 percent), Social Security (11 percent), education (21 percent) and even mass transit (35 percent). If Republicans honestly believe that they’re going to make large-scale spending cuts in such programs and live to tell about it politically, they’re simply wrong.
On the other hand, of course, tax increases are probably even less popular than spending cuts. We, the American people, don’t want cuts in spending, and we don’t to pay more in taxes. And as long as we have leaders willing to pander to those unrealistic and even childish demands, our financial situation will worsen.
So does that mean we’re doomed? No. It means that the only path out of this mess is a deal to which both parties agree, a deal that both cuts spending and raises taxes while giving neither side a political advantage.
– Jay Bookman