What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Though President Obama once seemed to hold hopes of presiding over one of Washington’s fabled ‘grand bargains’ to rein in the long-term national debt, recent events have painted a different picture. Republicans have pushed an increasingly maximalist line — deep cuts to discretionary spending, Social Security and Medicare, zero new revenues and no effort to boost the economy at all. Meanwhile the president and his congressional allies have continued a series of tactical retreats with no clear stated limit on how much they’ll concede.

But the picture is stranger when you leave the hot house environment of Washington, where I just spent a couple days and look at what evidence we actually have about the mood of the country.The controversy in the debt ceiling debate has three main pillars. 1) raising taxes (or not) 2) cutting Social Security and Medicare (or not) and 3) the question of ‘raising the debt ceiling’ itself. For better or worse, discretionary spending is so detailed and various it’s not highly politicized. But it may get there. So let’s put it under the general heading of #2, budget cuts.

On the question of raising taxes on wealthier Americans, as a means of reining in the deficit, public opinion polls have been extremely consistent. Clear majorities and often in the range of 2 to 1 majorities support it.

Medicare and Social Security are probably the most obvious. Numerous polls over the last six months show that any cuts to Social Security or Medicare are extremely unpopular.

And that brings us to the popularity or unpopularity of raising the debt ceiling itself. In Washington and on Capitol Hill it’s taken as a given that making a debt ceiling vote is political suicide. And it’s true that it does not poll well. But even a cursory look at the polls show most people have very little understanding of what the question is and are much more divided than people — or at least Washington — realize. A Gallup poll from early May showed the second biggest number of people were those who said they didn’t know enough about the question to have an opinion — the Gallup poll from May 13: 47% said vote against a debt ceiling, 19% said vote for it and 34% said they didn’t know enough to have an opinion. Note that 47% said don’t vote to raise the debt ceiling at all. Not ‘don’t do it unless you get a good deal’ but simply don’t do it. Let the government default on its debts, which isn’t even really up for discussion in Congress except for some on the Tea Party wing of the House GOP.

And more recent polls have shown rising support for raising the debt ceiling as the public learns more about potential consequences. The most recent poll from AP shows a tie: 41% oppose raising the debt limit, 38% support and 21% either say “neither” or “unsure”.

That’s hardly a public that’s wildly against the proposition or even has terribly clear thoughts on the matter.

A fair reading of the debt limit polls is that when the public is asked should we take on more debt, it’s not popular. Republicans are overwhelmingly against it. Some polls have said the rest of the electorate is divided. And a big chunk of the electorate doesn’t even understand what the question is. It’s really not at all clear that a vote to raise the debt limit is a clear political liability — and the most recent poll shows the public evenly divided.

But again, draw back and see the big picture. The public overwhelmingly supports the Democrats on the tax question. On cutting Medicare and Social Security the public not only takes the Democrats side, the opposition to Republicans is at near lethal levels. The debt limit question may favor the Republicans but the public is generally divided and a significant plurality say they don’t even understand the question.

From these facts, you’d expect that the debt ceiling/debt cutting debate would be a pitched battle or that the Democrats would have the whip hand. But that’s far from the case. In fact, the Democrats have continued to concede ground as Republicans have upped the ante, daring the Democrats not to agree to cuts which are extremely unpopular.

Something doesn’t fit about this picture. What’s the disconnect? Some of this stems from deeper trends in the political economy — a topic I’ll discuss in another post. But the main answer is political. The Democrats have been overawed by Republicans continually raising the ante and bluffing — and being genuinely worried about the consequences of the United States defaulting on its debt, something the GOP doesn’t seem worried about. The real error here was buying into the idea of negotiations based on holding the future of the country’s economy hostage. But now the problem is that the Democrats are focused on a behind closed doors negotiation with no outside game while not making any effort to bring the larger public into the conversation.