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The politics of cutting budgets

Budget-cutting isn’t easy. As we go through the process, or at least through the debate, both parties err in interpreting public opinion. Democrats can take some solace from the fact that the Republicans’ mistake is more significant and more damaging to them.

Understanding voter sentiment on budget issues requires appreciating contradictions — Americans want to cut the budget in general, but they oppose cutting almost everything in specific. If you can’t deal with those seemingly incompatible statements, you cannot really fathom public attitudes on budget matters, nor understand how to navigate the attendant politics.

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The evidence is underlined by a recent Bloomberg poll that reprises a set of familiar data. While Americans prioritize “creating jobs” over cutting federal spending, a hefty 42 percent identify the latter as more important. Indeed, almost everyone agrees federal spending should be cut — in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 80 percent expressed concern about the deficit.

It is in the connection to job creation that Democrats misunderstand the tenor of public opinion. Economists, Keynesian and otherwise, along with Democrats, mostly recognize that federal spending creates jobs. Not so voters, at least many of them. 

In the Bloomberg poll, by a nine-point margin, Americans said the better way for the government to create jobs was to cut spending, while smaller numbers opted for “invest[ing] in projects such as high-speed rail, expanding access to broadband Internet,” etc. Indeed, several polls suggest that voters judge cutting federal spending the single most effective step government can take to create jobs. 

So when Democrats argue that the GOP is focused on spending cuts at the expense of job creation, most Americans shake their heads in disbelief, seeing those cuts as exactly the kind of “stimulus” we need.

Far more visceral, and far more consequential, is the public antipathy toward the cuts Republicans are trying to make. The Bloomberg poll provides the latest read in a long line of similar data. Voters oppose cutting community programs that serve low-income Americans by a 35-point margin; oppose cutting Medicare by 55 points; oppose cutting funding for medical and scientific research by 46 points; oppose cutting federal education programs by 56 points; and oppose cutting the Environmental Protection Agency by 26 points. 

If those cuts sound familiar, it is because those are precisely the programs Republicans are attempting to eviscerate despite widespread public opposition.

Of course, there is a seeming contradiction between supporting cuts in general and opposing them in specific. (The only cuts favored by large numbers are in “foreign aid,” the amount of which is consistently overestimated; welfare, labeled “welfare” and not “aid to the poor”; and some defense spending.)

Why the contradiction? In part it’s because no one requires voters to be consistent. Legislators have to make decisions that force trade-offs and require them to confront and, in some measure, resolve the contradiction. Voters only have to deal with these trade-offs in the ethereal world of poll questions.

Second, voters start from a very different premise. They believe that both tax increases and program cuts would be unnecessary if only what we might call “function 999” in the federal budget — waste, fraud and abuse — were reduced. In our polling, three-quarters of the electorate denies the need for tradeoffs, asserting that if only politicians made smarter decisions, we could eliminate the deficit without either cutting important programs or raising taxes. 

In the end, the GOP’s error is much more likely to be politically damaging. Acts of commission usually generate more hostility than acts of omission. Failure to link cuts to jobs (while nonetheless cutting and working to create jobs) will prove much less compelling than concrete cuts to education, cancer research, drinking-water safety, police on the streets and other programs Republicans are so anxious to decimate.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the Majority Leader of the Senate and the Democratic Whip in the House.