Kevin McCarthy, the Republican whip in the House, came to a Monitor breakfast with reporters today and flipped through various charts and graphs on the nation's deficit and debt. It was like Ross Perot all over again, except this chart guy was younger, more suave looking, and less folksy than the former presidential candidate from Texas.
Rep. McCarthy has shared these same charts with the 87 Republican freshmen to acquaint them with the budget landscape. Now it's time to take the show on the road, to districts and town hall meetings, he said. But can he round up the nation the way he rounds up votes on the House floor?
Reporters have seen such charts many times. They have written about them, especially the debt one that shows a tsunami of red ink whose waters are now starting to wash on to America's shores. But except for Mr. Perot, who made himself famous with his economic charts and graphs in his 1992 presidential bid, political leaders have not stayed focused on the debt.
The reason is the political difficulty in getting rid of it. As McCarthy himself admits, there's no way to do it without reforming costly entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security. These programs are highly popular with the American people. More than 85 percent of the country supports Social Security and Medicare, according to a March Harris Poll.
A February ABC/Wall Street Journal poll also shows that many Americans don't recognize entitlements as the main problem. When asked whether it will be necessary to "cut spending on Medicare," defined as the "federal government health care program for seniors," in order to reduce the federal budget deficit, only 18 percent said yes. A substantial 54 percent said no (the rest had no opinion or were not sure). The results were only slightly better for the same question about Social Security.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, House Speaker John Boehner said Americans aren't yet ready for far-reaching changes to entitlements. "People in Washington assume that Americans understand how big the problem is, but most Americans don't have a clue," said Speaker Boehner. "I think it's incumbent on us, if we are serious about dealing with the big challenges, that we go out and help Americans understand how big the problem is that faces us."
Leaders from both parties, including President Obama, should be talking to the public about the need for significant change (wisely, a bipartisan group in the Senate, called the "Gang of Six," took their deficit-and-debt show on the road this week). Politicians might be surprised at the wisdom of the American people, once they understand the details.
The same ABC/Wall Street Journal poll that showed large majorities find it mostly or totally unacceptable to "significantly" cut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, also found them open to specific changes. Majorities found it mostly or totally acceptable to reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees and to gradually raise the retirement age to 69. Both of these ideas were put forth by President Obama's deficit-reduction commission.
Two points jumped out from today's encounter with charts and graphs. The first is that unless politicians find the spine to lead on this issue, Americans won't follow. The second is that when Americans are given details to think about, they are quite capable of rallying behind a reasoned idea. It's when they are scared with generalities such as "significantly cut," that they seize up. That argues for details, not generalities, from politicians.