It’s been a recurring contention of mine that voter anxiety about out-of-control spending is paper-thin, and that Republicans would be well-advised not to over-interpret a big win in November and should prepare to meet fierce resistance to serious entitlement reform.
So imagine the upward arch of my eyebrow upon reading Jonathan Weisman’s front-page story in this morning’s Wall Street Journal—“Voters Back Tough Steps to Reduce Budget Deficit.”
Then I read the actual text of the story, which demonstrates no such thing. It’s a patent case of a newspaper editorializing—of thinking wishfully—on its news pages.
As a former newspaperman, I hasten to point out that reporters do not write their own headlines. They do, however, write their own ledes: “Frustrated voters, fixing on the $1.5 trillion federal deficit as a symbol of Washington’s paralysis, appear increasingly willing to take drastic steps to address the red ink.”
Unless by “increasingly willing to take drastic steps” Weisman meant something more akin to “increasingly willing to entertain the idea of taking drastic steps,” then his central assertion is as misleading as the headline.
The good news: The Journal conducted a focus group consisting of 12 Virginians (four Democrats, four Republicans, and four Independents). One of them, a 67-year-old man, said he’d accept “higher Medicare co-payments and deductibles.” A 56-year-old Republican man said he could live with a national sales tax.
Intriguing, sure, as far as anecdotal evidence goes.
The focus group, however, also showed evidence of the perils most in Washington seek to avoid. Craig Christmas, 38, a Democrat and public-school guidance counselor, said he didn't want to cut education or see his taxes rise. Randy Rowekamp, 61, a retired information-services worker from Midlothian, Va., who describes himself as an independent who leans Republican, railed against Washington profligacy and was reluctant to embrace specific cuts.
"You hurt people. There are people living on Social Security. If you start taking that away or lowering it, you're impacting a person's life," he cautioned. Ms. Davis, the photographer, adamantly opposed raising the eligibility age for Medicare.
Later we move on to initially encouraging recent Journal/NBC News polling data, which found that 74 percent “said it would be acceptable to change Medicare to provide larger subsidies for low-income seniors, while cutting subsidies for the more affluent.” And “64 percent would accept capping Medicare and Medicaid payments to healthcare providers, while 58 percent backed subjecting incomes over $107,000 to Social Security taxes.”
This is more than intriguing.
57 percent found cuts to national security and defense weapons systems unacceptable. Slowly raising the retirement age to 70 to reduce Social Security costs was acceptable to only 36 percent of those polled. Raising the eligibility age for Medicare was even less popular.
"Folks want to cut the deficit, but they say, 'Don't touch my Social Security. Don't touch my Medicare. Don't cut defense spending, and don't raise my taxes,"' said Rep. Gary C. Peters (D, Mich.), another member of the House budget-cutting task force. "This is going to take courage."
So we’re basically right back where we started: in the same old muddle of sweeping rhetoric and damnable details.
Rep. Peters is exactly right. Tackling long-term budget deficits is going to take courage.
Dare I raise an Obamacare analogy: Entitlement reform will have to be “rammed down our throats.”