Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

What people don't know about gun laws and the budget can hurt them.

Cartoon satirizes President Obama's chained CPI Social Security proposal
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Is it really possible that we are suffering from the ill effects of collective ignorance? Why yes, yes it is.

Consider a pair of examples regarding the major stories of the week in Washington: Obama's for a gun control law and his budget proposal.

Start with gun control. Nearly four months after 26 people – including 20 children – were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School it is an open question whether the momentum the tragedy generated can overcome the gun lobby's dug-in resistance.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Senior Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer last week gave a good indication of the administration's hopes at this point. "What we have to make sure is whatever we do is better than current law, so we're going to look at any compromise that comes forward, and we're going to base it on that," he said. "What the president said is if we can save just on life then that's worth trying." Virtually anything that can be described as making progress, however, incremental, will be seen as a win; combine that with the president's demand simply for a vote on a gun control measure, and you get a picture of low expectation setting. (In fairness, there is something to the notion that a win is a win; Yahoo!'s Walter Shapiro argues persuasively that just as the toothless 1957 civil rights bill established that segregationist southerners were beatable, paving the way for later substantive victories, so even a 2013 watered-down gun bill could belie the myth of the National Rifle Association's invulnerability.)

How did it come to this? After all, at the same appearance, Pfeiffer reminded the audience that closing the loophole that allows some gun sales to occur without a background check gets 90 percent support in polls. "There aren't many cardinal rules in politics," he said. "One of them is you don't want to be on the wrong side of a 90 percent issue."

But gun advocates seem comfortable there. Why? At least in part because of voter ignorance. Joel Benenson, Obama's chief pollster in 2008 and 2012 recently conducted a poll for the Democratic National Committee looking at the gun issue. He found that while 87 percent of voters favor universal background checks, 50 percent of voters prefer better enforcement of existing laws to enacting new ones. How to square that contradiction? Benenson found that "about 6 out of 10 people who believe we just need to do a better job enforcing laws don't realize that the laws are far weaker than they think," he and a colleague wrote in the New York Times.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Congress Support Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases?]

In other words the universal background check proposal could be undone by the fact that it makes so much sense. The public demand for it is muted by the fact that people assume that it's already a law.

But ignorance of the facts is not confined to the public. Consider the budget President Obama rolled out this week.

The noises you've heard around Washington since the first details of Obama's budget started leaking were progressives' heads hitting their desks. After a second term which started with such promise – Obama staking out a liberal position on the fiscal cliff and then making an unapologetic case for activist government in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses – the left is forced to wonder which Obama is going to show up on any issue. Will it be the clarion liberal of January or the feckless negotiator of the first term given to counterproductive preconcessions? This week's budget looked like the product of the first-term Obama with its proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the latter in the form of a "chained" consumer price index, which would alter the way cost-of -living adjustments are calculated.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

This pre-emptive compromise proposal seemed aimed, at least in part, at curing congenital ignorance among policy elites, both across the negotiating table and in the pundit peanut gallery, neither of whom seemed aware that Obama has been offering these proposals for months. Last month, for example, The Washington Post's Ezra Klein recounted a briefing with a senior Republican House member who laughed at the notion that Obama would support a chained CPI – all while the proposal was on the White House website. At the same time, Obama never seemed to get credit from the punditocracy for his willingness to compromise with the GOP. Republicans are unreasonable, the double-pox caucus – always eager to blame both sides – would say, but Obama needs to get serious about entitlements.