By Juan Williams - 03/19/12 09:00 AM EDT
In this political year, the No. 1 issue is the economy. And right behind it are arguments over the size of the federal debt and cutting government spending.
Late last month, a poll from The Associated Press/Gfk asked Americans if they wanted to increase taxes or cut government services.
Fifty-six percent said Congress should focus on cutting services to balance the budget, while 31 percent favored tax increases. Only 5 percent said the two should be done equally.
So, how might the average American solve the government’s money problem? Any polling about taxation and budget policy is extremely difficult. The issues are complex, and snap answers reveal more about emotion than honest solutions.
But one pollster is trying his best to find out. In his new book, “The People’s Money,” Scott Rasmussen brings original polling to the problem of balancing the budget.
First, Rasmussen finds that most Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, agree that profligate government spending needs to be stopped. There is wide agreement that the national debt — $15 trillion and growing — is utterly unsustainable. Just last year, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said the national debt was the single greatest threat to our national security.
For decades, politicians have said they are prevented from doing what is necessary to balance the budget because they lack the public’s support for difficult spending cuts.
Rasmussen says that is patently false. He makes the case that there is political support for smart budgets — even for painful cuts.
Rasmussen acknowledges that the budget deficit will not be erased only by cuts to “discretionary spending.” Optional expenses in the budget are now at the lowest level since the 1950s.
Instead, the deficits are primarily driven by required spending on a population that is getting older, receiving entitlements longer and needing more expensive healthcare. This is why President Obama used his political capital to push healthcare reform before deficit reduction.
The one missing piece of the deficit-reduction puzzle that I don’t think gets enough attention in the book — or in the larger budget debate for that matter — is the absolute necessity to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Any serious proposal to reduce the deficit must include a combination of spending cuts and deficit reduction.
Since former President George W. Bush’s tax rates were enacted in 2001, they have cost the government more than $2.5 trillion in lost revenue. Almost half of that revenue went to households making more than $380,000 per year. In a political calculation, Obama signed an agreement to extend those tax cuts in 2010.
Republicans do not want be to accused of raising taxes even on millionaires — which is supported by most Americans. The Occupy Wall Street movement’s focus on the elite 1 percent taking advantage of the 99 percent has played to populist anger. They helped to soften resistance to tax hikes on the rich. But that reluctance still rules Washington.
But Rasmussen goes beyond the political posturing.
He argues that the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 so offended the voters that it changed the nature of the debate over spending and created an opportunity for a program of fiscal sanity.
He looks at each of the biggest wedges in the pie graph that represents the federal budget: defense, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. His polling provides evidence of support for cuts.
Two examples are cuts to military spending and means-testing beneficiaries of federal entitlement programs. But Rasmussen’s conclusions beg the question: If these ideas are so popular, then why haven’t they been implemented already?
Many of the proposals fleshed out by Rasmussen were incorporated into the recommendations of two high-profile deficit-reduction panels last year. Yet both reports were picked apart by beltway partisans and prevented from coming up for a vote in Congress.
The Republican budget authored last year by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) also contained many of the ideas that Rasmussen says enjoy public support. But the conversion of Medicare into a private insurance voucher program proved politically toxic.
It was passed by the Republican-controlled House but defeated by Democrats and a handful of centrist Republicans in the Senate. Many Republicans will have much more difficult reelection races this November because they voted for that budget.
At a time when the discourse over our budget is characterized by misinformation and fantasy, “The People’s Money” is a valuable contribution that is rooted in fact and an understanding of the electorate. It represents a real search for solutions.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.