What 'fiscal cliff' fixes does US public really want?

Data within recent polls shed some light on why it’s so hard for the two parties to agree on solutions to the 'fiscal cliff' problem now facing Uncle Sam.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
US House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California speaks next to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland during a meeting with business leaders on Capitol Hill in Washington November 28. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers held separate news conferences on Wednesday, making their cases on how best to avoid the year-end 'fiscal cliff.'
Yuri Gripas/Reuters
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio speaks during a GOP news conference on the 'fiscal cliff,' on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 28.

Tax the rich! That’s the public’s answer to the “fiscal cliff” problem, if a new Washington Post/ABC News poll on proposed solutions to the looming crisis is any guide.

Sixty percent of Americans support raising levies on those with incomes over $250,000 a year, according to the survey. Meanwhile, reducing the deductions that people can claim on their income taxes was a much less popular move, opposed by a plurality of 49 percent of respondents. And raising the age of eligibility for Medicare? That’s a downright downer, with 67 percent of respondents rating that “no thanks.”

So this clarifies the political situation, right? President Obama’s solution wins, Speaker John Boehner needs to cave, taxes on the rich rise, Republicans and Democrats walk arm in arm out of the Capitol to a bipartisan catered lunch at the Hawk and Dove.

Nope. In fact, the data within this poll and similar recent surveys shed some light on why it’s so hard for the two parties to agree on solutions to the major money problem now facing Uncle Sam.

Dig into the Post/ABC data, and you find that Democrats and independents by large margins back raising rates on the wealthy. But Republicans oppose it. Fully 59 percent of self-described members of the GOP think this move would be a bad idea.

A new YouGov survey on attitudes toward the Grover Norquist Taxpayer Protection Pledge shows a similar partisan split. (You know what the Norquist pledge is, right? It’s supposed to bind signees to vote against any and all revenue increases. Virtually all House Republicans are adherents.)

Among Democratic respondents to the YouGov poll, a plurality of 35 percent say that any lawmaker who breaks the pledge to vote for tax hikes in the current situation should be commended. Republicans are just the opposite: A plurality of 40 percent say such a move should be criticized.

What does this mean? That as politicians elbow one another for position prior to hard negotiations, both sides may be representing the opinions of their constituencies at the moment, as opposed to being obstreperous for the fun of it.

And the public is watching the politicians closely here. A recent Gallup survey found that more than 80 percent of Americans think it is extremely or very important for Washington to agree on a plan to head off automatic budget cuts and tax increases prior to Jan. 1.

As to other proposed solutions, there are some where the differences between Republican and Democratic voters are not huge. Limits on the home mortgage deduction, for example, won 52 percent approval among Democrats and 43 percent approval among the GOP in a recent Pew Research Center survey. Forty-three percent of Democrats and 50 percent of Republicans support gradually raising the Social Security retirement age, according to Pew.

But those numbers don’t exactly represent ringing approval. And other fixes are far more controversial. The bottom line is that US voters are demanding their politicians solve a problem while remaining resistant or divided on actual solutions.

“If the deficit and related entitlements are to be addressed, it may well be in spite of public opinion, not in response to it,” concludes a Pew analysis.

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