Busting Washington Myth #1: Americans, Especially Moderates, Really Care About Budget Deficits

If you spend enough time here in Washington, watching cable news, or reading the opinion (and sometimes the news) pages of major newspapers, you’re likely to be told that budget deficits are a top tier or even number one concern to the American people. Furthermore, moderates (the people, who, according to conventional mythology, decide all elections – more on that here) REALLY care about these budget deficits. Therefore, it’s good politics to be a deficit hawk.

Unfortunately for those who ascribe to this way of thinking, this way of thinking is nothing but a myth. Let’s take a look at the results of an Economist/YouGov Poll that came out of the field ten days ago. Responses to “Which of these is the most important issue for you?” - 

Economist Poll

The economy is by far the most important issue, double in importance the next closest (healthcare!), and is incredibly important to moderates. Americans also view the budget deficit as less important than social security, (which, incidentally, is an entitlement we’re going to have to look at to deal with deficits down the line) and moderates rank immigration and education above the budget deficit in importance.

This poll does not exist in a vacuum. The New York Times/CBS News Polls for the last year have put economy/jobs well over 50 percent and the budget deficit down at or below 4.

So who does care about budget deficits? From both polling and anecdotal evidence, it’s clear that it is conservatives who see deficits as a core issue, with nearly 20 percent ranking it as their most important issue. It’s fairly obvious that tea partiers have identified the budget deficit as their number one issue, and they are anything but moderate.

Over the next few months, an argument will be waged about how to best pull America out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and create path to a truly 21st century economy. As in all things Washington, the arguments will be based a bit in policy and a lot of politics. In this case, economists tell us that pursuing austerity in the near term ranges from silly to having the potential to cause a double dip recession. What politicians need to understand is that, in addition to being bad policy right now, austerity isn’t good politics either. 

Of course, a cursory examination of those pushing the austerity meme should be a signal to the center-left (and many in the media, who’ve bought the deficit argument). Just because Joe Scarborough, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, etc sound reasonable does not mean we should take their advice. (Would you let an opposing team’s coach tell you what plays to call?) And even though it sounds like they’re giving advice, they’re not. They’re making an argument about the way the economy and our politics work. The worst thing the center-left can do is buy the right’s talking points about budget deficits. Instead, we have to have and sell our own about creating broad-based prosperity. 

Fortunately for the center-left, the correct policy is also the correct politics. The opposite side of that coin is that buying the conservative meme about deficits, and therefore cutting when we need to be growing, is both bad politics and bad policy. And it’s bad policy that will make the economy worse, which is the worst politics of all. The center-left would do well to not suffer that ironic fate.

For more, read:

The Fall Economic Narratives Begin To Take Shape by Simon Rosenberg, June 15

Memo to the President: Resist the Simpleminded Push to Cut Budget Deficits Now by Dr. Rob Shapiro, June 10