Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Will the Tea Party Succeed?

Just last fall, the Tea Party was ascendant. It elected scores of new members to Congress, and many Americans had a favorable impression of it. Yet whatever the Tea Party’s political success recently, it looks as if most Americans reject its policy of dramatically reining in government including programs like Medicare and Medicaid. 76% of Americans for example oppose reducing Medicare benefits. This means that even a substantial number of Republicans want to spare the program cuts.

At first glance, this is a bit surprising. Americans disapprove of the enormous federal deficit and say they want something done about it. Indeed, the consequences of not having a credible plan to address the deficit in the next few years could be devastating for the economy in the next few years. Wouldn’t Americans then support cutting Medicare and Social Security since they are such big drivers of the deficit?

As a Bloomberg study found, many voters have misperceptions of what programs contribute to the federal deficit. In fact, seven in ten voters think that foreign aid is a major government program when it reality it consumes about 1% of the federal budget. Of course, it is hard to blame voters alone for this. For decades, politicians have pledged that they will balance the budget. But too many claim that they will simply make government more efficient, or stamp out “waste, fraud, and abuse.” The upshot is that they can claim to be deficit hawks while sparing their constituents major pain. To the extent that they do target certain programs, it is easier to go after those that disproportionately benefit the poor—voters who have less power in our political system than the middle class or the wealthy.

I think this latest poll could have interesting implications for the 2012 race. For example, Mitch Daniels is being talked up a lot by pundits for his message of austerity and his record of cutting government spending in Indiana. He is probably one of the top contenders for the nomination. But if voters are still averse to spending cuts that will affect them, how well will his message really play? In fact, it could be a disaster. If the economy is improving and Obama produces a credible plan to reduce the deficit without altering Medicare and Social Security as much as Daniels wants, Democrats will have a field day. Daniels would appear heartless and out of touch. He might be susceptible to losing as badly as Walter Mondale or George McGovern, two men perceived as outside the mainstream.

This means that Daniel’s strategy of calling a truce on social issues may not be the best one. With centrists and moderates unlikely to support drastic changes to entitlements, the Republican nominee would need a strong turnout from the base to have a chance of winning. This would mean that social conservatives would need to be genuinely excited about Daniels in a way that they are not currently. Given this, perhaps the strongest nominee Republicans can muster would be someone like Huckabee who could get a big turnout from important evangelical voters.

If voters support deficit reduction only in theory, then it is conceivable that the same could be true for candidates who make their biggest issue the deficit.

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