American Opinion: Rebuild America, Don’t Sack It
August 12, 2010, 1:00am

Robert L. Borosage — President, Institute for America’s Future

“I still believe that this will be largely a referendum on the administration’s policies,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, explaining why the primary successes of wingnut tea party conservatives may not hurt Republican chances this fall.

With the economy in dire shape, Cornyn may be right — but what he doesn’t say is that that’s virtually the only way Republicans make dramatic gains this fall. If the election becomes a choice of direction, conservatives will be in trouble — even with foul economy.

An opinion poll released today by the Campaign for America’s Future and Democracy Corps reveals that Americans are strongly opposed to conservative ideas about cutting the deficit — and far more sophisticated about what is needed for the economy than the right-wing anti-government rant would suggest. The poll results, Democracy Corps memo, and slide presentation are available here (The poll was done with the support of, the SEIU and AFSME).

For example, a majority of Americans (53-42) and a plurality of likely voters support the federal government providing aid to states and localities to avoid further layoffs and service cuts. (See slide on page 7).

Provided even minimum context — that some “300,000 teachers and other educational workers are potentially facing layoffs” — support rises to 65-30, and over 60% of likely voters, with Republicans and independent moving dramatically in support. Republicans could pay a price for their continued obstruction of efforts to extend aid to the states or extend unemployment insurance.

Similarly, when it comes to cutting the deficit, Americans have very clear priorities — and they are a far remove from the conservative agenda. For example, House minority leader, the perpetually tanned Rep. John Boehner has called for extending the top end Bush tax cuts (without paying for them) and for raising the retirement age for Social Security to 70.

Large majorities of Americans just say no. By 54-41, likely voters support letting the Bush top-end tax cuts expire (with Democrats and independents united) And by a stunning 68 to 28, voters say that cuts for Social Security and Medicare should not be part of any deficit reduction plan — including over 60% of Republicans. Two-thirds of likely voters (65%) oppose raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 — including two-thirds (66%) of Republicans.

Instead, over 60% of Americans choose progressive measures — ending tax breaks for corporations that outsource jobs abroad, taxing excess profits on Wall Street, or lifting the cap on Social Security payments above the current 106,500 limit. By 54-31, they prefer higher taxes on the wealthy over a national sales tax that hits working people harder.

None of this is surprising. Americans are furious that Wall Street has been bailed out, and Main Street remains in trouble. They see the deficits as caused by bad political decisions — unfunded wars abroad, the bailout of Wall Street, special interest subsidies. They can’t understand talk of providing more tax cuts to the wealthy while cutting Social Security or raising the retirement age. In a time of Gilded Age inequality, they sensibly favor progressive taxes on the wealthy.

More telling, American attitudes about reviving the economy and dealing with deficits are far more sophisticated than the conservative rant about austerity and cutting spending.

Needless to say, Americans are increasingly negative about the economy — and for good reason. They are losing faith in Obama’s policies. While Americans hold Republicans in record low regard, they have also soured on Democrats in Congress. They are looking to protest Washington’s failure. So Cornyn may be right; if the election becomes a referendum on the administration’s policies, Republicans could make significant gains as a protest vote, not as an endorsement of conservative priorities.

But when Americans think about what needs to be done to get us out of the hole, they resist the rising media hysteria about deficits — or the conservative focus on slashing spending. As many — six-in-ten — give a favorable rating to a plan to invest in new industries and rebuild the country over the next five years as to a plan for dramatically reducing the deficit. They want action on both.

By 52 to 42 percent, more voters prefer investing in the future over an alternative proposition for bold cuts in spending — so long as it is combined with deficit reduction over time.

Six-in-ten voters respond positively to a broad narrative focused on resolving our public investment deficit in infrastructure. Investments in “roads, sewers, schools, trains, renewable energy and other basic parts of our communities” that would “create jobs, help business compete, improve our communities and generate revenues to pay down the deficit” makes sense to them. This message tests better than any other progressive message on investment as well as more conservative messages focused on spending cuts.

The reason for this is apparent. Americans are worried about deficits because they fear they will hurt the economy and jobs, and may threaten key programs like Social Security. They believe that cutting the deficit will create jobs. And they believe that putting people to work will help to reduce the deficit. The two are intertwined.

As Stan Greenberg concludes, “Voters take the long view, seeing the need for both a commitment to a 21st century economy and long-term strategies to reduce the deficit. These are complimentary, not exclusive goals. Progressives need to show they are serious about the deficits, but once they do, voters turn to them, not conservatives, for the right spending priorities and answers.”

Much of this is common sense:

The best way to cut the deficit is to put people to work. To do that, we need to make investments vital to our future and get the economy going, even as we address deficits. To address the deficits directly, we should make the rich and corporations pay their fair share of taxes and end wasteful spending on entrenched interests. It isn’t right to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for deficits caused by foolish wars abroad, bailouts of the big banks and wasteful special interest spending. Common sense, but this is not the agenda of today’s conservatives.

More tantalizing for Democrats are the attitudes of the “rising American electorate” — the young, minorities and single women. These represent 52% of eligible voters and were the heart of the Obama majority coalition in 2008. Today, they are also 70% of “drop off voters,” eligible voters that indicate that they may not turn out to vote. Their turnout has been notably reduced in special elections this year. They have been hit hard by the recession.

Yet these voters remain the most supportive of President Obama. They are staunchly progressive in their attitudes about investment and how to deal with deficits. They strongly support investing in areas vital to our future to get the economy going. They are most attracted to the message of building a new foundation for the economy. To mobilize them, they have to be given vision and hope.

Amid the drumbeat of elite alarms about deficits, tea party fury at spending, Republican trumpeting of the “voodoo” of top end tax cuts and balanced budgets, most Americans haven’t lost their heads. They don’t want working families to pay for the calamity that they did not cause. They expect those who had the party to pay for cleaning up the mess. And they are looking for a plan that will rebuild America, not simply one that will sack government.