Greg Sargent yesterday emphasized the extent to which a new CNN poll shows that Republicans have won the message wars on government spending; he cites similar sentiments from Kevin Drum and Jared Bernstein. I disagree! As John Sides said months ago, “The GOP has promised to cut and Obama seems willing to go along, at least to some extent. But the public won’t provide them much incentive.”

The CNN poll only asks about spending in general (“do you approve or disapprove of the cuts in government spending”). But we know that when it comes to questions such as this, public opinion is inconsistent: people regularly report supporting cuts in overall government spending, while supporting increased spending on most individual programs, and on most categories of programs. Spending bad; spending on education, veterans, Social Security, health care, infrastructure, the military, and all the other individual things that government actually does? Good.

Of course – and here I think Greg and I probably agree — it’s also true that public opinion tends to follow partisan cues, and given that the president publicly supported a larger deficit reduction deal with more spending cuts (and some tax increases), while Republicans support lots of spending cuts, it’s hardly a surprise that public opinion favors more spending cuts.  One sign of that? I wouldn’t make too much of internal splits in one poll, but it’s fascinating that Democrats supported the cuts in the deal much more (68/28) than did independents (60/35). The possible answer to that is that people who think of themselves as Democrats are also more likely to adopt the views of a Democratic president, regardless of what else they believe. And the president certainly did lend rhetorical support to the idea that cutting spending to achieve fiscal responsibility is a good idea, much to the (quite justified) dismay of liberals. But regardless, I don’t think it’s news that people like spending cuts in the abstract.

What I do think is worth noting is that the GOP position on taxes isn’t particularly popular, with 60% of respondents saying the deal should have included “tax increases for business or higher-income Americans.” That’s not new, but it is remarkable how scared many Democratic politicians have been to embrace that populist message. In my view, it’s not because of their own policy preferences or (as some say) the effects of wealthy donors on policy positions; I think it’s really because many Democratic politicians simply don’t believe it. Perhaps it’s a residue of the 1994 Republican landslide (when Republicans ran against Democratic tax increases); I don’t know. But I do think that if liberal activists could convince marginal Democratic politicians that a soak-the-rich position would be both good policy and good politics, it would indeed make some difference.

But the finding that people like aggregate spending cuts? Not a problem. When Democrats are unpopular (as in 2010) for other reasons, then people will listen to Republican politicians, and those politicians are going to talk about spending cuts, which people are predisposed to like. When Republicans are unpopular (as in 2006 and 2008) for other reasons, people will listen to Democrats, and will think in terms of wanting increased spending on all those programs they like. That does mean that it’s probably foolish of Obama to praise spending cuts! But it doesn’t mean that public opinion about the size of government is a constraint on reaching spending levels that liberals want.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.