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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tax and Spend?

One of my obsessions lately – other than banana crème frappuchinos – is the question of just how big a government Americans are willing to pay for. More specifically, how much are we willing to spend on social programs? To look at polling data from conventional surveys, you could be forgiven for thinking that we live in Sweden. Americans, according to results that have been replicated time and again, prefer spending more money than we currently do on health care, education, anti-poverty programs, child care, social security, and pretty much any other budget item other than welfare and foreign aid.
On the other hand, Americans think their taxes are too high, and a slight majority approved of the Bush tax cuts when asked before the 2004 election. That was true despite the fact that only a minority of Americans believed that the average worker benefited from them. (These and subsequent uncited figures are from my analysis of the American National Election Study.)
Furthermore, when people are forced to choose between raising spending on domestic programs, cutting taxes, or reducing the budget deficit, the number of voters who consistently choose spending increases over both of the other options indicates much more tepid support for spending increases than implied by questions that don’t pose trade-offs.
What would be particularly useful would be to ask people how they would allocate federal budget dollars. That is what a February 2005 survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) and Knowledge Networks did. This poll suffers from some real shortcomings. It didn’t allow for tax increases or cuts as an option, and while it allowed deficit reduction, participants were not given information about the size of the deficit. What is more, the survey only examined how respondents would allocate discretionary spending, so participants were not given an accurate picture of how much the federal government really spends in different areas. Excluding entitlement spending leaves out Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are three of the most expensive federal programs. Had entitlements been included, the allocations respondents would have given might look entirely different.
These weaknesses aside, the results of the survey are revealing. First, Americans would make deep cuts in defense spending in order to reallocate money to other priorities. Survey respondents would have cut defense spending by 31 percent relative to the 2006 budget Bush initially proposed – freeing up $134 billion. They would also have allocated $30 billion from the request the Administration made in their supplemental budget for expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan. These preferences are fairly remarkable given that Bush won the 2004 election largely on the issue of terrorism.
Second, Americans would increase spending on education, energy conservation, job training / employment, medical research, and veterans. They would decrease spending on the space program, science research, transportation, and administration of justice. While they would increase spending the most in dollar terms on education, they would raise energy spending to 12 times the amount Bush requested. The saving from cutting non-defense programs is basically negligible – less than the increase in education or energy spending.
Finally, given existing spending levels, Americans would prioritize the deficit over new spending – even without being given information on the size of the deficit relative to spending. Respondents would have devoted one-third more to deficit reduction than to education.
It is likely that if respondents had been told that the 2006 budget deficit was projected to be $400 billion – nearly as large as the defense budget – they would have directed even more of their dollars to deficit reduction rather than raising spending. And had Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security expenditures been given to respondents, the defense budget wouldn’t have looked quite as big, so defense cuts in service of domestic spending would have been smaller as well.
But the respondents to this survey couldn’t increase taxes in order to raise spending while at the same time reducing the deficit. As I noted above, American swing voters generally think they pay too much in taxes. However, they believe even more strongly that the rich pay too little. Taken together, this implies that a majority of adults would cut military spending and raise taxes on the rich in order to reduce the deficit and increase domestic spending.
This conclusion is likely not to sit well with many voters at all. Liberals will be frustrated that deficit reduction is prioritized above spending increases. Centrists will be uncomfortable with defense cuts and with the potential trouble that might be raised by calling for tax increases (even if just for the rich). The thin preferences for spending and deficit reduction over tax cuts mean that calls to roll back the Bush tax cuts are vulnerable to strategic framing by the Republicans. Finally, conservatives will be unhappy about a tax increase on the rich, defense cuts, spending increases, or perhaps all three.
The most important conclusion from this study, however, is that we need to improve upon it and get a more meaningful picture of the ideal budget voters would produce. This is a fairly basic question that we apparently can’t say much about.

5 comments on “Tax and Spend?

  1. Michael F. Sarabia on

    An additional fact: Candidate Nixon said “I have a plan” that’s all. Perhaps, he thought it common sense that a party that starts a war may not see how to find peace, you know, the ego gets on the way -the Korean War showed that.
    Thanks to Pres. Nixon, we may learn from Korea and Vietnam.
    Mr. Nixon, never specified his plan, he bombed Cambodia and Vietnam with more bombs than in WWII, in secret. Would we elect him if he had specified what he would do?
    Do you play poker with the cards up? War is not a game, “War is a continuation of politics by other means” -Clausewitz.
    Generals and Soldiers must use all their skills and weapons -surprise is the most effective.
    We must trust our President to direct the war, he will not run for office, he does his best. When he retires, we’ll know the consequences -and read his version.
    Candidates ought not be expected to outline his, or her, real plans, either. We ought not tell them where, or when, to surprise us with IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
    Michael F. Sarabia

  2. Michael F. Sarabia on

    Here are some Facts.
    1. The Administration refuses to speak directly with Iran and North Korea.
    Q. How can we reach mutual accomodation by refusing to even talk? Why is it that nobody else is afraid of talking with Iran or N. Korea?
    2. Sadam and Iran wish to “help us out” of Iraq.
    Nobody believes them.
    But, what if they offer us anything we ask, as long as we move out of Iraq?
    3. Can you image how would Israel survive if we simply leave Iraq, like we did Vietnam?
    4. When will we begin discussing, and accepting, the STRATEGIC differences between Iraq and Vietnam.
    Sure, the “Domino Theory” was proven false in Vietnam, but, have we considered the, obvious, consequences if a “Domino Theory” did apply to Iraq?
    If nobody knows the answers, how can a valid plan be formulated, or sold to the voters?

  3. DonnyBBad on

    I am in agreement with Prup. We need to re-energize the word “liberal” or at least define it in OUR terms. It amazes me that we’ve somehow allowed the opposition to tell us what our issues are. I’ve spent the last few years trying to assess whether I am, in fact, a liberal. Here’s the dilemma…
    Back in my late teens/early twenties I knew I was a liberal. That was in the 70’s. I knew what it meant to be liberal… the notion of allowing for multiple points of view, multiple possible answers to problems, and individually based solutions( this phrased in decidedly non-70’s terminology ). I knew what I stood for but it wasn’t the issues that made me liberal is was how I arrived at my positions that made me liberal. Nowadays, it seems to me that I border on moderate rather than liberal but to hear Republicans and conservatives talk, I’d be a screaming liberal from Haight-Ashbury. The question for me is how to take away the power of the Right to frame the debate and institute the terminology used within the debate.
    Perhaps the REAL problem is that Democrats have so marginalized what could truly be considered the “screaming liberals” that there is no longer a true “liberal left” to compare moderates to.

  4. libra on

    Me, I’m happy to have enough money _to_ pay the taxes on; lots of people are in a far worse situation. But, I’m like the the rest of “middle America”: I don’t see why the richest 1% or 2% population should have an easier ride than I do, since US is a “cart” we’re all pulling together. And, I’d like to be able to have a choice about how the money is spent; my choice is universal health and education, not a misbegotten war that feeds the egos of a few and fools a few thousand.

  5. Prup (aka Jim Benton) on

    Three cheers for this article and the new site. I believe that Democrats have been spending far too much time ducking attacks, and more, being afraid of being attacked, and have hedged and tried to hide their true core values. (They also have a habit of expecting Republicans to ‘play fair’ and not forseeing and blocking the worst Republican slanders. Preemptive strikes against people such as the Swiftboaters BEFORE they start spreading their poison would have worked, but Kerry assumed ‘no one would listen to these idiots’ until it was too late.)
    Why don’t Democrats try and rehabilitate that wonderful word, ‘liberal,’ and show, in ads, what it has meant to this country? (Civil rights, Social Security, Women’s Rights, workplace security, a cleaner environment. In every case it was the liberals who were right on these issues — and many more — and the conservatives who argued against them, but no one is putting together a fact sheet of Conservative speeches and columns against them.)
    Why don’t Democrats start attacking Republicans DIRECTLY on their ‘Don’t tax (the rich), Don’t spend (on needed programs)’ policies, USING THOSE VERY WORDS. Every Democratic candidate can go into schools, take pictures of the run down conditions, the ancient texts, and compare those schools to the ones where the parents voluntarily support the schools and have the money to do so. EVERY Democrat can say “Whether you support or oppose the War in Iraq, there is no excuse for the equipment we gave our soldiers when we sent them there.” And pin those lacks to the tax cuts for the rich.
    Democrats can STOP ‘acquiesing by silence’ in the Republican myth that Government is inefficient and unnecessary. They can bring out the Galbrathian idea of ‘countervailing power’ and show how government is the only thing that can protect people from the power of the corporations and the ‘mob’ (meaning the bigots, the Christianists, and the like).
    Democrats can start demanding their Republican opponents either repudiate or accept the wilder statements of the Coulters, the Limbaughs and the like.
    Democrats can start publicizing the statements of Republicans in places such as the platform of the Texas Republicans and stop ignoring them on the ground that they ‘don’t really mean them.’ They can use the slogan “This time they do mean it,” on areas such as abortion and the idea of the US as a “Christian nation.’ (And remember that ‘Christianity’ is not the Christianity of Catholics, of liberal Protestants, etc. any more than it is of Jews, Muslims, and secularists.)
    The Democrats can exploit the coming inter-necine fights the Republicans will be having as they head towards a Goldwater-type debacle as a good part of their base argues the losses they are suffering is because they are not ‘conservative enough’ and begin fighting between the Christianists, the no taxers, the Libertarians, the anti-immigrationists, the neo-cons, as to the proper way of being ‘conservative enough.’
    And finally we need to not just pin their corruption on the Republicans, we need to make people understand how this corruption HURTS THEM.
    Of course the Democrats need to have a positive, trustworthy leader (and not one, like a certain NY Senator, that will unify and energize the Republicans and increase their voter participation rate by 10%), need to have programs of their own, but the Republicans have won for years by making the Democrats the issue, have won despite preaching programs the majority of people opposed. We have got to remember that attacking is not always the same as Rove-ing. (To quasi-quote Harry Truman “I don’t give ’em hell, I give ’em the truth and it feels like hell to them.”)
    We can win, we can become the majority party again — and our ideas always have been the ideas of the majority — we can leave the Republicans a splintered group of fragments. But too often we have deserved the condemnation that we ‘miss no opportunity to miss an opportunity.’ We need the courage of our beliefs, we need to use the power of advertising properly instead of backing away from going after the truly horrible ideas of the Republicans, we need to turn the Republican’s weaknesses and vulnerability against them — again I mention Coulter and the Texas Republican platform and the neglect of the things we need to make our government efficient and humane.
    We can win. Let’s do it this time.


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