John Boehner is promoting a new Marist-McClatchy poll which supposedly shows that Americans love cutting government spending. Boehner claims the poll shows that “Americans want spending cuts,” and quotes a Marist official asserting it demonstrates that Americans “are not in a mood to increase taxes.”

Which is funny, because the poll actually shows that majorities of voters would rather increase taxes than cut spending on education, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and infrastructure. In other words, it demonstrates a central fact about public opinion that may help determine how the sequester “blame game” will play: Americans say they love cutting government but suddenly balk in a big way when you start talking about cutting specific programs.

The poll’s toplines do at first glance appear favorable to Republicans. It finds that voters prefer reducing the deficit by mostly cutting spending in general rather than by mostly increasing taxes by 53-37. It finds that a plurality of Americans think spending cuts won’t impact them — and that as many think the cuts will help the economy or have no impact on it as think the cuts will hurt it.

But the poll took the welcome step — which I haven’t seen before — of asking whether Americans prefer tax hikes rather than cuts in specific programs. The results:

* by 65-31 they prefer to raise taxes than cut spending on education;

* by 60-33 they prefer to raise taxes than cut Social Security;

* by 57-36 they prefer to raise taxes than cut Medicare;

* by 53-40 they prefer to raise taxes than cut spending for transportation including roads and bridges;

* by 50-42 they prefer to raise taxes than cut Medicaid.

Americans prefer spending cuts to tax hikes in only three areas: energy, jobless benefits, and…defense! In all these other areas, majorities explicitly prefer raising taxes to cutting spending — and this is the case even though the poll question doesn’t tell respondents whose taxes would get raised, i.e., rich people and corporations who currently enjoy tax loopholes that would be closed. At the same time, one key place where the public would rather see spending cuts is defense, the area of cuts in the sequester that most Republicans see as its worst feature.

This gets to something interesting about the unfolding battle over the sequester. Republicans are proceeding from the assumption that the overall clash of messages favors them, because Americans like spending cuts in the abstract, as the McClatchy poll demonstrates. But one thing that’s noteworthy about the politics of the sequester is that it is likely going to allow Americans to experience the impact of specific cuts in a unique way.

The Beltway media understandably tends to analyze such battles in terms of overall messaging and theatrics (did Obama cry wolf on the sequester?). But we’re already seeing local media around the country focus directly on how specific cuts will impact local communities and local economies. As Steve Benen nicely puts it: “The sequestration ‘wolf’ is already showing his fangs.”

Jed Lewison highlights a great example of this: GOP Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming waxing enthusiastic about the sequester, only to find that it is already leading to cutbacks in the workforce at Yellowstone National Park, potentially hurting the region’s economy.

It would be folly to suggest that the sequester — and whatever damage to the economy it does — doesn’t hold political peril for the President. Of course it does. But if the bite of the “sequestration wolf” gets deeper and harsher in specific districts and states, leading to damaging spending cuts that voters grow aware of and come to hate, this could very well end up damaging Republican officials (who represent the party of only-austerity-forever and crisis-to-crisis governing) just as much or more. Any GOP triumphalism about the politics of the sequester is premature. This is a long game.

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UPDATE: One other point. Even the finding that majorities prefer reducing the deficit by mostly cutting spending in general — rather than by increasing taxes — is not that meaningful. That’s because the Dem position is to reduce the deficit by a mix of the two. Polls that offer that option find majorities support it. (Also, I’ve edited the above post a bit for accuracy.)

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.