The ongoing irrelevance of debt-ceiling polls, cont’d

Polls like these seem to be released every few weeks. The results are nearly always the same, and their relevance doesn’t change much, either.

A large majority of Americans say the U.S. economy would probably suffer serious harm if Congress fails to give the federal government more borrowing authority. But barely half support raising the government’s debt limit, even if lawmakers also sharply cut spending. […]

“There is no alternative here to raising the debt ceiling,” Carney told reporters. “This is not about additional spending. This is about honoring the obligations that the United States government has made. And the consequences of not raising the debt ceiling, as some of these rating agencies have suggested, would be severe.”

The poll suggests that people believe such warnings. But large blocs — particularly among Republicans and independents — still do not like the idea of permitting the national debt to continue its upward spiral. Nor do they particularly like their options for reducing the debt.

Brilliant. If you ask the public, they’ll say they don’t want the debt ceiling to be raised, don’t want the consequences that come with default, and don’t want the proposals being debated as part of debt-ceiling talks.

Forget the “Party of No”; we’re now looking at the “Populace of No.”

But as we’ve talked about before, these polls should be rejected as irrelevant. Policymakers really don’t have any other choice.

I saw one astute observer recently compare these surveys to asking Americans which medical treatments are safer than others. It’s an apt comparison — poll respondents may have opinions on the matter, and they may have heard bits of information about competing options, but they lack the knowledge and understanding to give those attitudes constructive value.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: policymakers simply must ignore debt-ceiling polls. The public has no meaningful understanding of what the debt ceiling is, what happens if interest rates go up, what causes interest rates to go up, the global economic consequences of a potential default, or even what default is.

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.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.