If you want to know why it's so hard for elected officials to make a deal that begins to close the federal budget gap, look no further than a new poll by McClatchy-Marist. The results of the poll show that while many respondents say they would like to see a budget deal, there's little support for any of the specific measures included in the survey. A majority of respondents opposed cuts to Medicare, changes to the program's eligibility age, cuts to Social Security, letting the current payroll tax cut expire, letting the Bush tax cuts expire on everyone, eliminating the tax deduction for charitable contributions, cutting spending on Medicaid, reducing the home mortgage interest tax deduction. The only proposal supported by a majority is raising taxes on the wealthy. This tells you a lot about why the fiscal cliff negotiations are moving so slowly, and why it's so difficult to for Congress come to agreement on a budget deal.
What's particularly revealing, though, is what you see when you single out the poll's self-identified Republicans. Unlike the overall polling sample, a majority of the poll's Republicans do not support raising taxes on the wealthy. But they don't support any of the spending cuts mentioned in the poll either. Not to Medicare or Medicaid, and not to the tax loopholes surveyed either. Republicans, in other words, don't support much of anything except leaving things the way they are now. Which is exactly what we can't do.
Might there be some spending cuts that Republicans do support that just didn't get included in this poll? Probably. Polls suggest that most voters are open to cuts in foreign aid. Cutting subsidies for public broadcasting usually plays well with the GOP base. But polls also tell us that voters consistently overestimate how much of the budget is spent on those sorts of things by a large margin: Surveys have shown that respondents estimate that 10-25 percent of the federal budget goes to funding foreign aid, and about 5 percent goes to public broadcasting. The reality is that only about 1 percent funds foreign aid, and only about 0.1 percent is used to subsidize public broadcasting.
This confusion, and the unwillingness to face up to our actual long-term budgetary challenges, explains a lot about why the GOP's last presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, talked a big game about cutting deficits and reducing the debt, but when asked for specifics focused heavily on small-ball spending cuts. It also helps explain why Republicans now are so often wary of talking about overhauling the entitlement system. And it also speaks to a larger confusion within the party about what government should do and be: In theory, the GOP is the party of small government. But polls like this one suggest that it's really the party of the status quo.