Public Opinion and the "Big Spending" Canard

I think it's a good rule of thumb to never use public opinion data as evidence that your conception of American politics is the correct one, if only because it's far too tempting and easy to cherry-pick results. This new Kaiser Family Foundation poll [PDF], for instance, has excellent data about how Americans feel about the welfare state, broken down demographically, with generally well-designed questions that help one form a good impression of how the public sees the government's role in this sphere. So, not to pick on Andrew Stiles at National Review, who has a judicious read of the Kaiser poll, but he does end up concluding that the public is "fed up" with the "free-spending liberal agenda," which relies upon both a ridiculous characterization of what the liberal agenda" is and a generous interpretation of what the public actually believes.

He begins by prefacing that the poll shows "relatively favorable results for Republicans," by comparing the results of two questions. The first straightforwardly asks whether Medicare should be preserved without change, or whether it should be shifted to a voucher system. Stiles doesn't discuss the first question at all, and moves to the second, where he finds a silver lining in the 40-54 age group -- "They prefer a premium-support model by a seven-point margin." He acknowledges that seniors hate this idea, but doesn't note that other age brackets do, too. So, in this case, the good news for Republicans is that slightly more 40-54 year-olds prefer something along the lines of the Paul Ryan plan. Well, it's a start.

Then we get to the dreaded list of specific spending cuts. For each area of federal spending, there are options for "no" reductions, "minor" reductions, "major" reductions, and then "some" reductions. What is "some," you might ask? It's some undefined ratio between "major" and "minor," according to the survey. And this is the column that features outright majorities across the board (the obligatory 56 percent in favor of "major reductions" to foreign aid excepted, of course). The "no reductions" mostly gets few votes, and Stiles concludes that "it’s clear that, in general, the default Democratic position -- 'no reductions' -- is simply untenable at this point." Ha ha, stupid tax and spend liberals.

Except that 62 percent favor "no reductions" to Social Security, 57 percent favor "no reductions" to Medicare, and 50 percent favor "no reductions" to Medicaid. Sure sounds like a resounding rejection of the "free-spending liberal agenda." But the point is that the public's aversion to cutting spending on these programs is well-known. You can look at the polls from different angles, but nothing's going to change that simple fact. 

All of this makes the conservative opposition to health care reform all the more absurd. Here's an effort to actually "bend the curve," but there's nothing but lockstep opposition to it from the right. Are they opposed to even trying? If these public insurance programs are simply unaffordable, shouldn't they be halted now? Even for seniors? Gee, you'd almost think that maybe they're less interested in "cutting spending" than they are for trashing these specific programs, as long as they don't step on the toes of those who currently enjoy them.

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