In 1967, the political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantrill wrote that Americans were “ideological conservatives” but “operational liberals.” What they meant was that when asked broad questions about how government should work and what it should do, voters responded like conservatives. But when asked operational questions about which programs should be cut and which services should be eliminated, they responded like liberals. Voters like big cuts and smaller government in theory, but they don’t want to actually cut anything in practice.
The poll in question finds that people like the idea of broad spending cuts, but that Republicans were unpopular on the issue -- despite being the party that's supposedly all about cutting spending. Voters' "ideological conservative/operational liberal" stance isn't as irrational as it would seem, if you consider the mixed messages most voters get about budget matters -- and especially considering the existence of a media more concerned with finding "balance" than in finding truth. The average person doesn't have the time it takes to ferret out what's really going on in Washington and the news media and punditry can't be bothered to tell them. So you wind up having to blindly choose among the true and the untrue to arrive at your positions.
So if some rightwing tool starts talking about cutting spending in the abstract, you're for that -- especially when they frame it as "wasteful spending" or "government handouts." The right deals in vague and unrealistic terms, in order to hook people into their point of view.
But switch over to the liberal channel and suddenly you're dealing in specifics. What will be cut, who will suffer, what affect these attacks on demand will have on the economy. Suddenly, you're not so for these drastic cuts anymore. You're trying to figure out where all the handouts and waste you were hearing about before are supposed to be. You still want to cut them, but no one can actually seem to find them.
One side deals with economic reality and one's just a dishonest sales pitch. It's no wonder that, when the chips are down and the numbers are real, voters side with liberals on cuts. And that's where things start to get a little interesting.
Writing about a Politico piece on the effects of the sequester on two congressional districts -- one Democrat, one Republican -- Greg Sargent sees the "ideological conservative/operational liberal" dynamic playing out in a way that is not good for the GOP.
Yes, the sequester clearly holds perils for both sides. But the Politico story shows that this battle may end up unfolding exactly as Dems had predicted — with individual lawmakers beginning to panic as the reality of the cuts begins to be appreciated by their constituents. With Republicans claiming the sequester as a “victory,” the GOP could continue to be tarred as the party of destructive austerity. What’s more, majorities support the Dem argument that we should replace it the sequester with a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. By contrast, the GOP fiscal vision — deficit reduction only through deep spending cuts, paired with deep cuts on tax rates on the rich — is unpopular, and Dems may be able to persuasively argue (given that 68 percent see the GOP as the party of the rich) that Republicans would sooner allow the pain of extended sequestration to continue rather than close a few millionaire loopholes.
"However this turns out, the moral of the story is that people really, really don’t like spending cuts when they’re directly impacted by them," Sargent writes. Bingo. The day the sequester was triggered, Republicans did the happy dance. They paraded the sequester around like Hector's body at the walls of Troy. They sent the word out far and wide that they had been victorious. Republicans may try to blame Obama for the cuts, but to a much larger degree, they've taken credit for them. They own the sequester cuts.
And when those cuts really start to hurt, voters will remember who was smiling on sequester day.
[photo via sociotard]