Voters Snookered Republicans on Budget Cuts

Tea Partyers want cuts, but not in programs they like.


When Speaker John Boehner lies awake at night wondering how things in the House got so bumpy so fast, there's one person he worries about the most. It's not a triangulating Democrat or a hard right Republican. It's Jodine White.

Last year, White took part in a New York Times/CBS poll that found 92 percent of Tea Partyers, like her, wanted smaller government. And almost three quarters of them said they'd support spending cuts to get there, even if it meant cutting Social Security and Medicare. Republicans heard that message loud and clear in 2010 and ran with it, railing against the government and making bold promises about cutting it down to size. And they won. [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama taking the right approach to entitlement reform?]

But wait. "In follow-up interviews," the Times reported, "Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security ... suggesting instead a focus on 'waste.'" When asked to reconcile those findings, Jodine White said, 'That's a conundrum, isn't it?'"

Well, yes, Jodine, that is a conundrum. Aren't Tea Partyers in a rage over an America that's lost its way, and determined to get us back to the kind of government our Founding Fathers wanted? Surely no Tea Party patriot could be distracted from that noble task by something so base as self-interest.

"I don't know what to say," Jodine explained. "Maybe I don't want smaller government. I guess I want smaller government and my Social Security ... I didn't look at it from the perspective of losing things I need. I think I've changed my mind.'"

Oh. How... revolutionary.

And, apparently, she's not alone. Last week, as Greg Sargent reported, Pew released a new poll showing that while many Americans want to restrain federal spending, they are allergic to a whole range of specific spending cuts. It's the same thing on the state level. People think state governments should cut spending to help retire huge budget deficits, but they have a hard time finding specific budget cuts that they support.  [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

That helps explain the new Democratic strategy of trying to move the spending debate from the general to the specific. But what about all those Republicans who were elected in 2010 on the strength of angry rhetoric and solemn promises to cut spending like it's never been cut before? If the intra-party budget squabbles we saw last week are any indication, they still want to move forward full steam ahead. (Hence making $100 billion in budget cuts an inviolable goal.)

It used to be so much simpler to be a Republican. You could bash government because your base (the wealthy, corporations) didn't see why their tax dollars should go to support programs that had nothing to do with them. Democrats defended government because their constituency includes people who sometimes need the government programs that taxpayers fund. But in times of economic distress, Republicans can pull voters from what should be the Democratic base because antigovernment rhetoric sounds pretty appealing to people who thought government would be there when the going got worse, and then discovered it wasn't. [See a slide show of the best cities to find a job.]

That's smashing for Republicans on Election Day, but it can complicate things every day thereafter. Because when you have to translate your rhetoric into action, people who were enraged at government yesterday can switch on a dime when they realize something they like is on the chopping block. [See editorial cartoons about the GOP.]

It's like the new Republicans got snookered. They thought the message voters were sending was: "Cut spending!" And they are eager to please. But what if their constituents are all Jodine Whites? People who thought they wanted spending cuts until they realized what those cuts could do to them? They're sending a different message: "Cut spending! Unless it's spending that benefits me." That's a trickier thicket.

Alas, poor Boehner. All he has to do is figure out how to pass spending cuts that will appease the true believers in his caucus—and the voters who will see any deviation from deep cuts as the kind of political compromise they find so distasteful—without offending the very same voters by trying to cut something they like, which is difficult to do if you are going to pass spending cuts that will appease the true believers in your caucus.

How do you do all that?

That's the real $100 billion question.

  • Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama taking the right approach to entitlement reform?
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.
  • See a slide show of the best cities to find a job.