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Debt-limit debate views

Don’t let anyone tell you a big, widely covered public debate on a topic of vital importance can’t shift public opinion. Though a relatively paltry 29 percent are following the discussion closely, attitudes on the debt ceiling are shifting. Dramatically.

Americans now are divided on whether to raise the debt limit, at least when reminded of the consequences of both options. Just a few weeks ago, a CBS poll found Americans opposed to increasing the debt limit by a daunting 45-point margin (69 percent to 24 percent). Today, in response to the same question, 46 percent favor an increase and 49 percent oppose it. Though majorities of independents and Republicans oppose a higher debt limit, support in both segments has doubled in the last few weeks. Democrats opposed an increase by 19 points in June, but now favor it by 30 points.

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Quinnipiac polling confirms the basic result, with 43 percent more concerned “that raising the debt limit would lead to higher government spending and make the national debt bigger,” whereas 46 percent are more worried “that not raising the debt limit would force the government into default and hurt the nation’s economy.”

Reminding respondents of the consequences of each option, as the CBS and Quinnipiac questions both do, is not trivial. Gallup, which makes no mention of consequences, asking whether respondents would rather their member of Congress vote for or against a debt-ceiling increase, produces different results — 42 percent prefer a vote of no, compared to just 22 percent who favor a yes.

However, the shift in opinion is unmistakable in the CBS item, asked identically at two different times. On an issue many people know little about, disconnecting the policy from the arguments leads voters back to their original corners.

Second, voters increasingly understand some of the consequences of failure. The number who foresee a severe economic downturn if the debt ceiling is not raised jumped by 20 points, with 45 percent now believing that outcome to be very likely. Awareness of default as a result of failure is oddly less widespread. Even fewer (27 percent) understand that Social Security, Medicare and payments of veterans’ benefits will be halted. 

Third, Americans want cooperation, not conflict, on this issue. By 76 percent to 14, Americans prefer an agreement they don’t like over failure to reach an agreement and the resulting default. Given Republican intransigence, it is particularly striking that rank-and-file GOPers prefer an agreement they don’t like to default by 78 percent to 14. Indeed, in response to a separate CBS question, by 75 percent to 22, Republicans want their party’s members of Congress to compromise — a wish congressional Republicans seem congenitally unable to grant.

Fourth, voters believe the president is trying to cooperate but Republicans are not. While 60 percent believe President Obama is trying to find a solution to the problem, 62 percent believe Republicans are not. That is in part why Americans said they would blame the GOP for failure by a nine-point margin in a June Pew poll and by a 14-point margin in the more recent Quinnipiac survey. 

Finally, voters reject the Republican solution. Republicans inaccurately but self-righteously claim to be doing the public bidding in demanding that no revenue increases accompany cuts. Poll after poll demonstrates voters’ desire for a balanced plan, incorporating both spending cuts and revenue increases. In the CBS survey, 66 percent backed a combination of cuts and revenues over either option on its own. Quinnipiac registered an almost identical number preferring a combination of spending cuts and tax increases over spending cuts alone.

Perhaps that is why a striking 85 percent, including 75 percent of Republicans, want the GOP to compromise rather than stick to its principles in this fight. 

A Republican Party that was listening to America, even one fixated on its base, would put country over ideology. 

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.