Battle lines are being drawn for a showdown over government spending. It will no doubt make the hard-hitting Super Bowl contest between the Steelers and the Packers look like a game of touch football. For those outside of Green Bay and Pittsburgh, the outcome of this debate could be much more important than who takes home the Lombardi Trophy.
Republicans have stayed consistent with the message that swept them to huge victories in November—our government must spend less. They have taken steps to ban earmarks, demanded spending reductions in the debt limit debate, and have offered detailed plans to cut spending. Republicans have to hope that Americans' concern over the deficit isn’t simply an extension of a weak economy. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
Democrats are making a much more cynical gamble. They’ve read the polls and understand that spending cuts are popular in the abstract, but disliked when you start offering specifics. A party that offers cuts to any beloved programs, even in the name of deficit reduction, opens themselves up to voter scorn. Democrats are attempting to leverage that reality to turn the spending debate in their favor. Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent wrote:
Don’t look now, but there are increasing signs that Democrats are adopting a surprisingly aggressive and unapologetic posture in the looming political battle with Republicans over government spending. Rather than running from the issue ... they are treating this as an argument that can be turned to their advantage, if it’s framed in the right way.
Obama used his State of the Union to argue that this is America’s “Sputnik moment,” in which government spending will help the economy break through its doldrums. Yesterday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called a mock hearing to pressure Republicans into implementing Obama’s call for more spending. Now the DCCC is getting in on the action, using radio ads to attack Republicans in 19 districts for wanting to cut spending on “education,” “science and technology,” and “research and development.” [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats.]
A recent Gallup poll shows that it may be a workable strategy. Although 84 percent of Americans cite the federal budget deficit as either extremely or very important (trailing only the economy and unemployment), majorities disapprove of many means to cut spending. Gallup finds that 55 percent oppose cuts to anti-poverty programs, 61 percent oppose cuts to Medicare, and 64 percent oppose cuts to Social Security.
This may work for President Obama, who just needs to skirt fiscal disaster long enough to get reelected in 2012, but do other Democrats really believe this is a sound long-term strategy? [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]
Last week, the CBO reported that the deficit would likely hit $1.5 trillion this year, the highest figure in our nation’s history. A report by CNN finds that interest payments on the national debt could total $7.5 trillion if debt and interest rates continue their steady climb. The situation is growing so bad that Senate Democrats, such as Kent Conrad, are bucking the party line to declare, “We’re going to have to deal with the entitlements of Social Security [and] Medicare.”
I’m not sure what Democrats think they can gain by attempting to turn Republican’s spending cuts against them. Implicit in the argument is that our current fiscal course is sustainable. Such deficit deniers may succeed in the short term by scaring voters into thinking Republicans are trying to impede progress or threaten social welfare programs. When reality sets in and the bill comes due, Democrats may wake to find that their party platform has shrunk considerably. After all, it is difficult to promote an active role for government when there are simply no dollars to spend.
I may not be able to predict a Super Bowl winner with any accuracy, but it doesn’t take ESP to see that Republicans have the upper hand in this battle over spending.