Still true after 40 years: Voters prefer cuts in theory, spending in practice

March 18, 2013

In 1967, the political scientists Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantrill wrote that Americans were "ideological conservatives" but "operational liberals." What they meant was that when asked broad questions about how government should work and what it should do, voters responded like conservatives. But when asked operational questions about which programs should be cut and which services should be eliminated, they responded like liberals. Voters like big cuts and smaller government in theory, but they don't want to actually cut anything in practice.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama and former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Forty years later, this observation is, in political science circles, utterly banal. But in Washington, D.C., it's almost entirely ignored. Which brings me to a particularly amusing poll from the Hill newspaper today. Their headline is: "Voters prefer GOP ideas on budget, but dislike the Republican Party". My headline would be: "Voters prefer spending cuts in theory, spending in practice."

The survey is a slim one. Only five questions. The first asks whether Americans prefer a budget "with $1 trillion in tax hikes and $100 billion in cuts that does not balance the budget" or one "that does not raise taxes, cuts $5 trillion and balances budget".

Given those two options, can you guess which they chose?

Yes, 55 percent would prefer unspecified cuts and a balanced budget to unspecified tax increases that never balance the budget. The next question confirms the observation: Asked whether they prefer to balance the budget with mostly spending cuts or mostly taxes, a solid majority choose mostly spending cuts. Hence, "Voters prefer GOP ideas on budget."

The next question complicates matters a bit. Asked which party they prefer on budgetary issues, 35 percent chose the tax-loving Democrats, while only 30 percent chose the budget-slashing Republicans. That's strange.

Then, asked whether Obamacare should be fully repealed, 45 percent said yes, but 37 percent said it should be fully implemented, and another 14 percent said "neither." So a majority support something other than repeal.

Then comes my favorite question: "Budget constraints were recently cited as the reason for cancelling tours of the White House. Should those tours be resumed?" 54 percent said "yes"; 28 percent said "no."

Think about that for a moment: The same voters who say they want $5 trillion in cuts aren't even willing to suspend White House tours.

Here, then, is a more accurate summary of the poll. When asked whether they'd prefer a budget with huge spending cuts and a balanced budget to one with tax hikes and no balanced budget, voters say they'll take the spending cuts, thanks. When asked whether they prefer spending cuts to tax hikes, voters say, again, they want the spending cuts. When asked whether they prefer the budget gets written by the party that support huge spending cuts or the party that supports tax hikes, they name the party that supports tax hikes. When asked whether Obamacare should be fully repealed, most voters say "no." And finally, when asked if maybe we can just cut spending by getting rid of a piddling little program like White House tours, voters overwhelmingly say no.

There's nothing to marvel at here. Voters have been like this since at least the 1960s. The wonder is that anyone still commissions polls asking Americans whether they support theoretical spending cuts and then trumpet the response as if it means something.

In February, the Pew Research Center for People and the Press decided to drill deeper. They asked Americans whether they'd like to increase, decrease, or simply sustain spending in 19 different areas. There was literally not one area -- no, not even foreign aid -- in which "decrease" won out over increase and sustain:

pew poll spending

The past few years have been a war between conservatives who want to keep the budget debate at a high level of abstraction and liberals who want to focus on the actual programs and services affected. We saw that fight play out in the election, as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan fought to keep their tax plan vague, while the Obama administration fought to make the likely cuts to tax expenditures specific. We've seen it in each budget debate as the Obama administration tries to name the cuts implied by the Republican budget while the Republicans deny those cuts. We've seen it in the sequester, as the Republicans have embraced the theoretical approach of across-the-board cuts, but fought energetically against the one specific cut to get any attention -- the White House tours, of all things. We've even seen it on entitlements, where Republicans swear that Medicare is the problem, but also run against the Obama administration's Medicare cuts.

The incoherence, in other words, doesn't just lie with the voters. Elected Democrats often campaign as philosophical conservatives, swearing they too want to cut spending, while elected Republicans often campaign as operational liberals, promising to protect all the spending people actually care about.

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Dylan Matthews | March 18, 2013