What to do when the public is wrong

WHAT TO DO WHEN THE PUBLIC IS WRONG…. There’s been a fair amount of consistency in national polls in recent months. Americans like higher taxes for the wealthy, dislike radical changes to Medicare, and don’t want the debt ceiling to be raised.

Despite Obama administration warnings that failing to do so would devastate the economy, a clear majority of Americans say they oppose raising the debt limit, a new CBS News/New York Times poll shows.

Just 27 percent of Americans support raising the debt limit, while 63 percent oppose raising it.

Eighty-three percent of Republicans oppose raising the limit, along with 64 percent of independents and 48 percent of Democrats. Support for raising the debt limit is just 36 percent among Democrats, and only 14 percent among Republicans.

Seven in ten who oppose raising the debt limit stand by that position even if it means that interest rates will go up.

These results were published yesterday, but they’re practically the same as related polling data in other surveys dating back quite a while.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: policymakers simply must ignore them. The public has no meaningful understanding of what the debt ceiling is, what happens if interest rates go up, or the global economic consequences of a potential default. It’s quite likely Americans perceive the question as a poll on whether or not they want a higher debt.

This is one of those classic dynamics in which responsible policymakers realize that they know more about the subject matter than the public at large, so they have to do the right thing, even if the uninformed find it distasteful — knowing that the disaster that would follow would be far more unpopular.

Put it this way: what if the poll had asked, “Would you rather raise the debt ceiling or risk a global economic catastrophe and massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare?” The results, I suspect, might have turned out differently.

Or maybe not. Either way, it doesn’t matter. The public is wrong, and Americans need sensible leaders to do the right thing, even if they’re confused about what that is.

Now, I can hear some of you talking to your monitor. “Oh yeah, smart guy?” you’re saying. “The polls also show Americans hate the Republican budget plan. If the public’s confusion on the debt limit should be ignored, maybe the public’s attitudes on eliminating Medicare and gutting Medicaid should be disregarded, too.”

Nice try, but no. Here’s the thing: folks know what Medicare and Medicaid are. They have family members who benefit from these programs, or they benefit from the programs themselves. It’s not an abstraction — these are pillars of modern American life, and institutions millions of come to rely on as part of a safety net.

The point is, polls only have value if the electorate understands what they’re being asked. The debt ceiling is a phrase the public has barely heard, and doesn’t understand at all. That doesn’t apply to Medicare in the slightest.