Thursday, February 17, 2011

Republicans jumped into a tricky thicket

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 people like Jodine White.

Last year, Jodine took part in a New York Times/CBS poll that found 92 percent of Tea Partiers, like her, wanted smaller government. And almost three quarters of them said they would 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.

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, that is a conundrum.

Aren't Tea Partiers supposed to be in a rage over an America that has lost its way? Aren’t they 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 as base as self-interest!

"I don't know what to say," Jodine explained. "Maybe I don't really 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."

Well…there goes the revolution…

And, apparently, she is not alone. Last week, Pew released a new poll showing that while many Americans want to restrain federal spending, they are against a whole range of specific spending cuts. It is 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.

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 angry rhetoric and solemn promises to cut spending like never before? If the internal Republican squabbles we saw last week are any indication, the elected Tea Partiers want to move full steam ahead.

It used to be so much simpler to be a Republican. You could bash government because your base (the wealthy individuals and 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 anti-government rhetoric sounds appealing to people who thought government would be there when the going got tough, and then discovered it wasn't. In other words, they got mad at the government for not saving their jobs and homes – and since Obama had just won the presidency the moment the economic downturn started to sink in, then he and the Democrats got all the blame.

That was wonderful for Republicans on Election Day, but it is complicating 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.

It is like the Republicans got fooled. They thought that the message the voters were sending was: "Cut spending!" And they were eager to please. But what if their constituents are all like Jodine White – people who thought they wanted spending cuts until they realized what those cuts could do to them? 

They are sending a different message now: "Cut spending! Unless it's spending that benefits me." 

If they cut too much or cut the 'wrong' items, if too many Americans are directly affected, it becomes a trickier thicket for Republicans to jump into. The House Republicans could all lose their jobs in two years if they go too far with those cuts – but with the blinders they have on, they can't see it. 

*Taken from: Voters Snookered Republicans on Budget Cuts, By ANSON KAYE
U.S. News & World Report
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