The hotly contested and divisive 2012 election, which saw more negative advertising than any presidential electoral contest in American history, did not seem to provide fertile ground for a divided Congress to successfully negotiate over the nation’s budget crisis. But just after the election, majorities of both Democratic and Republican voters indicated that they want Congress to move beyond ideological logjams and find a balanced solution that addresses revenue increases as well as spending cuts.
In the looming shadow of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” there is at least some early indications that elected officials are listening. For example, some Republican congressmen are doing what just a month ago seemed unthinkable: publicly announcing that they are ready to break with a decades-old pledge to oppose tax increases. Prominent senators Saxby Chambliss, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain, alongside a handful of other Republican members of Congress, said that the pledge not to raise taxes in any form – which prominent anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist has convinced hundreds of Republicans to sign – is outdated, and will not help solve the country’s current economic problems.
A balanced approach to solving the deficit problem, which focuses on raising taxes as well as cutting major programs, is popular among American voters overall. When asked in the wake of the election about the best way to solve the deficit problem, only 1-in-5 (20 percent) voters say we should focus mostly on cutting major programs, and less than 1-in-10 (6 percent) say we should focus mostly on increasing taxes. More than 7-in-10 (71 percent) voters favor a combination of the two approaches.
There is a near consensus among voters for President Obama (83 percent) that lawmakers should employ both tax increases and program cuts in tackling the federal deficit. Moreover, even approximately 6-in-10 (59 percent) Romney voters agree with this approach, although a significant minority (36 percent) believe that leaders should focus mostly on cutting major programs.
But although there is general support for a balanced approach, an agreement on the details of revenue increases and program cuts may be harder to come by. On specifics, Obama and Mitt Romney supporters remain divided, not only by policy preferences, but by deep divides on values, particularly the role of government programs. On the revenue side, while more than 6-in-10 (63 percent) voters favor increasing taxes on Americans with household incomes of more than $250,000 per year, there are sharp partisan rifts. An overwhelming majority (87 percent) of Obama voters favor these tax increases, while 60 percent of Romney voters oppose them.
Although nearly two-thirds (66 percent) of voters overall oppose cutting federal programs that help the poor, there are also deep partisan divides on this issue. Eighty-six percent of Obama voters oppose these cuts, while Romney voters are more divided (45 percent oppose, 49 percent support). These differences are rooted in deeper, values-based divides about the role of government. For example, 8-in-10 (80 percent) Romney voters believe that government is providing too many services that should be left to religious groups and private charities, while nearly an identical number (79 percent) of Obama voters disagree.
Despite these differences, political leaders from both parties have built-in incentives for reaching a compromise prior to going over the edge of the fiscal cliff. If an agreement cannot be reached, not only will the Bush-era tax cuts expire, but defense spending will be cut by $55 billion, and $55 billion more will be trimmed from domestic programs.
In addition to these practical incentives to avoid a lose-lose scenario that would be disastrous for the economy, Congressional leaders from both parties would do well to remember that voters are not looking for ideological clashes; instead, they prefer a balanced approach to our budget woes. The next few weeks will tell whether they have been able to shake off enough of the political campaign dust to listen.