A few years ago, somebody (forgive me for forgetting who it was) suggested that newspapers should have a daily feature called "Things That Are Still True," which would remind readers of important facts that are still important even if they haven't generated news in the sense of being new. In that spirit, during the current budgetary debate it's a good time to remember what I think is one of the three or four most enduring and important facts about American politics and public opinion. Almost half a century ago, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril argued that Americans as a whole were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal, meaning that in broad terms they like "small government," but when one gets specific it turns out they like almost everything government does, and want it to do even more of it.
This fact explains practically everything about how the Republican and Democratic parties set about appealing to voters. Republicans talk in broad, ideological terms about small government and free enterprise, while Democrats talk in much more specific terms about programs, whether it's Medicare or Social security or education or what have you. The problem Republicans have is that if you're going to govern, eventually you have to get specific.
Which brings us to the current confrontation over the government's finances and spending. One of the difficulties in the negotiations is that Republicans say they want to cut lots of money out of the government's budget, but they won't say exactly what it is they want to cut. Jonathan Chait argues that the reason is that "the Republican understanding of government spending is based on hazy, abstract notions that don't match reality and can't be translated into a workable program." That's true to a degree, but the real problem may be not so much that they don't have things they'd like to cut but that they know the cuts they'd like to make would be very unpopular. That's the thing about that operationally liberal public—once you tell them that particular programs are going to be cut, they don't like it.
So what, specifically, can Republicans object to in the federal budget? Mitch McConnell has identified some "out-of-control Washington spending" that simply must be scaled back at this critical time:
"Get this, taxpayers also just spent $325,000 on a robotic squirrel named robo-squirrel," the Kentucky Republican complained. "The president just sent us a 73-page report detailing how $60 billion in [Hurricane] Sandy funds would be spent."
"Don't you think he could put together spending cuts that at least -- at least -- includes robo-squirrel?" McConnell opined. "We're still waiting. Why? Because for Democrats, apparently, every dollar in federal spending is sacred."
San Diego State University spokesperson Greg Block recently told News10 that the actual cost of robo-squirrel was only a few hundred dollars and the rest of the grant went to supporting students.
"A small part of the money was spent on building the squirrel, the rest was spent on the students," Block said. "This is how National Science Foundation grants work."
Well there we go. If we can just get rid of $325,000 NSF education grants, then this budget mess could be all sorted out. I understand that sometimes as an orator you use individual cases or stories to make a broader point, but what's McConnell's point here? That we're spending too much on science education? If so, he should say so. If his point is just that we spend a lot of money on unnecessary stuff, then there are a lot of much more germane examples than the squirrel. How about the budgetary Titanic that is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which over its lifetime will cost taxpayers more than a trillion dollars? And yes, that's trillion with a T.
The reason is obvious: if you're a Republican and you want to rail against spending, the safest way to get specific is to talk about programs that almost no one knows or cares about. If you can make them sound a little silly, all the better. That way you can convince the ideologically conservative public that you're fighting for the "small government" they support, while not hinting to that same operationally liberal public that you'll take away the programs they also support.