February 22, 2013

As we get closer to the sequestration deadline, followed a few weeks later by the appropriations deadline that could cause a government shutdown, new polling by Pew reminds everyone why the Republican position is so hard to maintain: people really don’t like spending cuts. In fact, most Americans want to increase spending on most government programs.

That is, people like the idea of spending cuts when they’re discussed generally, in terms of the overall cost of government. But when it gets down to specific programs, suddenly things change.

Here’s what Pew found. When asked about Medicare, 46 percent want to keep spending where it is, but for those wanting a change in spending, those wanting more spending (36 percent) were double the number who wanted less (15). The total who want to keep Medicare spending where it is or increase it: 82 percent.

When asked about spending on environmental protection, 43 percent want to keep spending where it is; 33 percent want more; 22 percent less. The total who want the status quo or more spending: 76 percent.

On education, the total wanting spending the same or higher: 89 percent. The total who want less: 10 percent. On Social Security, the total who want spending the same or higher: 87 percent. The total who want less: 10 percent.

Even for the least popular programs, support for cutting spending is low. Only 32 percent want cuts in unemployment spending. Even foreign aid — the classic example of an unpopular program — doesn’t get a majority for cuts, with 48 percent wanting reduced spending while 49 either want the same or more.

Nor is this poll a fluke; indeed, even most conservatives are against cutting spending on most programs.

When sequestration hits, then, it will hit one popular program after another … and there are no large chunks of the budget which Republicans can offer as alternatives.

Indeed, the one place where Republicans are actively fighting cuts — defense — is one of the least popular, ranking 16th of the 19 categories Pew asks about.

Ehen it comes to the fight over budgeting in general and sequestration in particular, there’s probably nothing more important to know about public opinion than the fact that most people like spending cuts in the abstract, but oppose them for virtually all specific programs. Republicans believe they will be able to shift the blame for unpopular sequester cuts to Obama. But Obama will be repeating that he wants cuts balanced by tax increases on the wealthy and corporations, while the consensus Republican position will remain that we should only have deep cuts — indeed, that we should go farther than the sequester.

So when voters start complaining about specific cuts, Obama can offer to replace them with specific tax increases voters favor. But all Republicans have to offer to replace specific unpopular sequester cuts is … other specific unpopular cuts. This is not a playing field that sets up well for Republicans.