Deficit, schmeficit

DEFICIT, SCHMEFICIT…. A CBS News poll released this week asked Americans what they’d like to see Congress focus on next year. The clear winner was “economy/jobs,” cited by 56% of respondents. Health care was a distant second at 14%. The deficit, the wars, immigration, taxes, and education were all mentioned, but their results were in the low single digits.

Of course, the public will not get its wish. Economic growth and job creation should be the focus, but Republicans, with their new House majority, have already made clear that their top priorities are fairly low priorities for the American mainstream — gutting the health care system, protecting tax cuts for the wealthy, and reducing the deficit. (Yes, those are contradictory goals, since gutting health care and cutting taxes would make the deficit much worse.)

The larger point to remember, though, is a truth the political world often forgets: deficit reduction is a political loser because people really don’t care. Steve Kornacki had a very good item on this the other day.

Sure, you can find polls that show an unusually high number of Americans expressing concerns about deficits and the debt, but this sentiment is explained by two phenomena: (1) Republican voters (and functionally Republican “independents”) echoing their party leaders (and right-wing talk show hosts and activists), who identified the debt as a political weapon to use against Obama from the earliest days of his presidency; and (2) Authentic swing voters (that is, the small share of registered independents who really do swing back-and-forth between the parties) pointing to the debt as a top worry because their intense economic anxiety has made them receptive to the GOP’s doomsday warnings about runaway deficits.

So, let’s say that Obama actually did embrace Simpson-Bowles and got it enacted. Would this “restore his cred with Independents”? Not at all. First, as noted above, a significant chunk of the “independents” who are worried about the debt are actually functional Republicans — that is, they vote Republican in election after election but like to call themselves “independent.” These voters would not suddenly give Obama credit for tackling the deficit; they’d simply follow along with whatever line top GOP leaders and activists came up with in response. As for the “real” independents, the small chunk who aren’t functionally part of either party, their debt/deficit fears are driven mainly by economic anxiety, so they’d only give Obama credit if the economy simultaneously improved.

And since focusing on deficit reduction generally happens at the expense of growth, the goal would be counter-productive anyway.

The track record here is pretty consistent — Reagan was the father of the modern deficit, and no one cared. When Mondale tried to make deficit reduction central to his ’84 campaign, he lost 49 states. Clinton was the father of modern deficit reduction, but no one much cared about that, either, and by the time he left office after two terms, much of the country didn’t even realize he’d completely eliminated the deficit and had begun paying off the debt. George W. Bush was the most fiscally irresponsible president in American history, but on the long list of Bush’s failures, most Americans don’t even consider the $5 trillion he added to the debt. Obama has actually reduced the deficit over the last year, but no one actually hears deficit hawks praising him for it.

Voters want the economy to grow. They want more jobs. If they actually cared about the deficit, they’d be outraged by the notion of a new round of tax cuts (they’re not), and supportive of measures like the Simpson/Bowles plan (they’re really not).

It’s not altogether clear people even know what the deficit is. For many, it’s likely that the deficit is just something that’s “bad.” Indeed, given that deficit concerns tend to coincide with economic downturns, some folks might see a correlation — the deficit is high and the economy is bad, they figure, so maybe if the deficit were lower the economy might get better.

All of this is nonsense, of course, but it’s worth remembering when various political players suggest policymakers’ popularity is riding on deficit reduction. It’s not.