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Tax Cuts Vs. A Balanced Budget Vs. Increased Spending

The latest Ipsos-AP poll has an interesting exercise that clearly illustrates the public's relative priorities when it comes to tax cuts, a balanced budget and increased spending. These relative priorities can be inferred from the findings of other public polls, but the Ipsos-AP exercise throws these priorities into exceptionally sharp relief.

Here's what they did. Ipsos asked two questions about these priorities (via split sample). The first was "If you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the or cutting taxes?" The public's response was overwhelmingly in favor of balancing the budget (61 percent to 36 percent).

The second question was: "If you had to choose, would you prefer balancing the budget or spending more on education, health care and economic development?" The public's response here was equally overwhelmingly in favor of increased spending. So balancing the budget trumps cutting taxes and increased spending trumps balancing the budget.

This is nice to know, but it does raise some troubling questions. If that's the public's view, how did the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts pass? Why did the Bush administration believe it could get away with flouting the public's priorities so ostentatiously? And why has there not been–at least as yet–a public backlash against the Bush tax cuts and their baleful social implications?

These are important questions. At least part of the answer lies in changes in the US political process highlighted by political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in this paper and in their forthcoming book, Off Center: George W. Bush, Tax Cuts and the Erosion of Democracy .

Hacker and Pierson argue that the political environment in the US has changed in two basic ways (both of which, in my view, are particularly useful for understand the GOP’s current style of politics). The first is that politicians in this dealigned, money-driven era have increased incentives to reward their base, including partisans, activist groups and the wealthy, since incumbents who avoid primary challenges (which tend to come from the base) and receive high levels of financial and interest group support are now almost assured of re-election. Pleasing the base is the key to keeping that re-election machine going, not following the preferences of general election voters.

The second is that politicians have an increased ability to avoid the electoral consequences of displeasing average voters. Most obviously, the number of competitive elections has declined and the ability of unions and other local, grassroots organizations to punish incumbents has decreased. Less obviously, but just as important, legislation has become ever more complex, and polling ever more sophisticated, making it easier to hide large drawbacks of legislative changes from average voters and highlight small benefits instead.

Together these changes in the political environment mean that the benefits to legislators of ignoring the the public's preferences have increased while the costs of doing so have gone down. Applying this to the case of the tax cuts, GOP legislators clearly saw how much the cuts would please their base and thought they could get away with passing them by playing up the minor savings for the typical voter and hiding the huge payoffs for the rich and overall budgetary damage from the cuts.

Let's hope there's finally some payback for these guys this November. In the meantime, if this discussion piques your interest, I have an article in the forthcoming issue in The American Prospect that goes into much more detail on these questions.

Comments

The Hacker and Pierson arguement as to the reasons why legislators can operate as they do regarding policies that work to the disadvantage of most voters is a persuasive one.

I am a little puzzled though about the results of the Ipsos-AP poll that shows a preference for more government spending and balanced budgets vs. lower taxes. The Rasmussen Poll (perhaps with a smaller sample) shows Missouri voters split; 42% wanting a balanced budget more than reduced taxes while 43% favor cutting taxes over a balanced budget. When given a choice between cutting government spending vs. a balanced budget, 57% preferred cutting spending.

Can Missouri voters be that different than the national sample of Ipsos-AP? Could it mean that Bush's tax cutting policies will gain some traction for him in the heartland at Kerry's expense?

1. how did the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts pass? 2. Why did the Bush administration believe it could get away with flouting the public's priorities so ostentatiously?

Sorry to be flippant, but the tax cuts were legislation like any other, heavily promoted by Bush as 'job and growth cuts' , and he sold them, and Congress passed them -- same old really.


3. And why has there not been–at least as yet–a public backlash against the Bush tax cuts and their baleful social implications?


I dont know exactly what 'public backlash' means or how that works -- Bush's tax cuts DO provide an increased child credit, elimination of the marriage penalty and reduced taxes on dividends.


BUT ... as your cited study shows, folks DO NOT priortize those tax cuts -- and that MAY be key --- (IF Bush's only solution to a jobless recovery remains 'make the tax cuts permanent)

here's another illuminating study:

http://news.findlaw.com/prnewswire/20040301/01mar2004111314.html

Ruy asks, "If that's the public's view, how did the Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts pass? Why did the Bush administration believe it could get away with flouting the public's priorities so ostentatiously?"

Well, if the poll asked the question, "Would you like to have taxes cut and have more spending, all the while pretending that it won't affect the deficit?" it would surely poll well, perhaps better than any that you list.

That was certainly the line used to sell the Bush tax cuts (cake and eat it too, bundled with a free lunch), and it worked.

Will it work again? Perhaps. Hopefuly, voters will keep Bush's timeless aphorism in mind: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, [pause, remember who and where you are] we won't be fooled again."

AB

Isn't this likely just more evidence of poll-takers trying to "look good"? (Isn't it called the "good samaritan" problem with polling?) In the end, it means more Americans believe that the right thing to say to the question of tax cuts vs education is "education." It doesn't actually reflect a voter's tendency to vote for candidates who will raise their taxes.