The Bachmann wannabes: Conservative in the abstract, but slippery with specifics

All four candidates running to succeed U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District are running on their intent to reverse budget deficits allegedly piled up during the Obama era.  As Minnesota Public Radio’s (MPR) Brett Neely reports:

“So far, there’s little in the way of policy differences that separates the four candidates.  They’re all sticking with the national GOP’s message about what ails Washington.

GOP candidate Rhonda Sivarajah:  “The debt.”

GOP candidate Phil Krinkie:  “Out of control spending.”

GOP candidate Tom Emmer:  “Bureaucrats.”

GOP candidate John Pederson:  “The deficit.”

The same can be said of the Republicans challenging Senator Al Franken, Governor Mark Dayton, and every other DFL incumbent.  This should come as no surprise.  “The national GOP message” is based on public opinion research, and polls show that an overwhelming number of Americans are concerned about the deficit.  For instance, about 90 percent of Americans surveyed in a Bloomberg poll believed that the deficit is getting worse (62 percent) or not improving (28 percent), with only 6 percent saying that the deficit is decreasing.

In other words, the Republican message is selling with Americans.  This bodes well for them in the 2014 mid-term elections.

The myth of ‘skyrocketing deficits’

It’s worth noting that 90 percent of Americans are wrong about the state of the deficit.  In an article titled “The Best Kept Secret In American Politics-Federal Budget Deficits Are Actually Shrinking!,” Forbes magazine notes:

Over the first four years of the Obama presidency, the deficit shrunk by a total of $300 billion. The improvement in the deficit as measured against GDP is the direct result of the deficit falling to $845 billion for fiscal year 2013—a $300 billion improvement over the previous year. And the positive trend is projected to continue though the next fiscal year where the the annual budgetary deficit will fall again to $430 billion.

More recently, the deficit outlook has further stabilized. As CNN Money reported in May 2013:

By 2015, the deficit will fall to its lowest point of the next decade – 2.1% of GDP. And it will remain below 3% until 2019, at which point it will start to increase again. Deficits below 3% are considered sustainable because it means budget shortfalls are not growing faster than the economy.

Still, perception is reality in politics, so conservatives can be expected to milk this inaccurate “the deficit is skyrocketing” myth for all it is worth.

Courting ‘Progressative’ voters with generalities

At the same time, don’t look for conservative candidates to provide a detailed list of spending cuts they would make to reduce the deficit and debt more rapidly.  Again, they read polls, so they know that Americans overwhelmingly oppose cutting the largest and fastest growing government programs.  For instance, a Washington Post poll finds that 77% oppose “reducing Medicare benefits,”  82% oppose “reducing Social Security benefits,”  and 51% oppose “reducing military spending.”  Other polls show that opposition to cutting Medicare and Social Security is even more vehement among Americans over 50 years old, who are disproportionately likely to vote, particularly in non-presidential election years such as 2014.

Beyond those enormous spending programs, a Pew poll also finds that a plurality of Americans believes that the funding levels for all 19 major government spending categories they tested should be either increased or maintained.  Though conservatives have spent decades calling for cuts in “government spending,” Americans are steadfastly rejecting specific cuts in all parts of the federal budget.

Therefore, the dilemma for contemporary politicians is this:   Americans support the abstract notion of “cutting government spending,” which sometimes make us appear to be a conservative nation.  At the same time, Americans oppose cutting any of the component parts of “government spending,” which makes us look like a remarkably progressive nation.  Fiscally speaking, Americans are “progressatives,” conservative with our generalized rhetoric, but progressive with our program-by-program choices.

If the past is predictive of the future, most political reporters won’t press conservative candidates for a specific list of spending cuts to support their bluster.  Instead, reporters will allow conservative candidates to rail in a generalized way about “cutting spending,” and in a false way about “skyrocketing deficits.”  And as long as that rhetorical free ride is allowed to continue, the polls show that conservatives’ “cut government spending” mantra is a winning message.

This post was written by Joe Loveland and originally published on Wry Wing Politics.

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