If the public mostly sides with Democrats in the great budget debate, but Dems act as if this isn’t the case and proceed as if it’s a foregone conclusion that they will lose the argument, then did the public ever side with them at all?

There are some numbers buried in the internals of today’s Post poll that raise this question. To wit:

* A big majority, 64 percent, thinks the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit is through a combination of spending cuts and tax hikes, while only 31 percent think the best way is through only spending cuts. The former position is the one held by most Dems, while the latter is the one held by many Republicans.

* Far more think that Republicans have been not willing enough to compromise on the deficit (71 percent) , than think the same about Obama (52 percent) or Democrats (56 percent).

* The public trusts Obama over the GOP to handle the deficit by nine points, 45-36, even though Republicans are widely presumed by commentators to be the ones more deserving of the mantle of “fiscal hawk,” as it has been arbitrarily defined.

* More Americans agree with the Democratic argument that budget cuts will cause job loss (45 percent) than agree with the GOP argument that it cuts will create jobs (41 percent), though that spread is within the margin of error.

To be sure, in some key ways Republicans have the upper hand in this debate. Majorities disapprove of Obama on the economy and the deficit, and more see Republicans taking a strong leadership role in Washington, 46-39.

But that said, the above numbers suggest that Democrats can plausibly conclude that the public agrees with them at least as much as with Republicans on how to handle our fiscal matters. Yet Dems are not proceeding as if this is the case.

It’s true that in recent days Dems have been stepping up their efforts to unite behind a clear alternative to the GOP vision that we must cut government at all costs, demanding that tax hikes on the rich and cuts in unnecessary subsidies be part of the discussion. But the bigger picture is that the GOP largely continues to set the terms of the debate. Democrats have helped them to do this by acquiescing in advance to temporary deep cuts and by failing to forcefully articulate an alternative vision on the deficit.

I get that moderate Dems in red states feel a political need to embrace the GOP’s budget-cutting rhetoric. But Dems in general are proving too unwilling to stand up for their fiscal worldview. As a result, they’re getting drawn deeper and deeper on to the GOP’s cut-cut-cut rhetorical turf, and are finding it difficult to find their way out again. The above polling suggests it didn’t — and doesn’t — have to be this way.