What Do the People Want From the Fiscal-Cliff Deal?

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Americans want a deal that reduces the deficit, raises taxes on the wealthy, and doesn't cut entitlement benefits. But most of all, they want compromise.

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With lawmakers getting down to business on a fiscal-cliff deal, interest groups are working overtime to tell the politicians what the voters want them to do.

This matters a lot, obviously; all else being equal, politicians are much more likely to take stands they believe to be political winners. But when it comes to concocting the perfect blend of tax hikes and spending cuts, what the people want is not perfectly clear.

This week, a fight has broken out between Democratic groups over whether there is a popular mandate for entitlement reform. Each has fresh, credible polling data to support its position. On the one hand, a group of labor unions says a clear majority don't want any cuts to Social Security or Medicare; on the other hand, the centrist-Democratic think tank Third Way claims even a majority of President Obama's supporters support a bipartisan compromise to fix those programs.

In the Third Way poll of 800 Obama voters -- conducted post-election by the Benenson Strategy Group, which also polls for the president -- 79 percent said the president and Congress should "make changes to fix Social Security and Medicare." But in the poll of 1,000 general-election voters conducted for three unions -- the NEA, SEIU, and AFSCME -- by the prominent Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, 87 percent opposed cuts to Social Security, and 80 percent were against cuts to Medicare. Large majorities also opposed cutting education funding, college aid, and unemployment benefits. In the Third Way poll, 69 percent said the deficit was a major problem; in the unions' survey, just 29 percent wanted Congress and the president to focus on reducing the deficit.

What's going on here? In short, clever polling. Both polls were carefully constructed to elicit the answers they wanted. The Third Way poll, for example, asked voters if they wanted politicians to "compromise" and "make changes" -- it didn't mention "cuts," and it didn't dig into the specifics of any proposed "changes" to entitlement programs. When you keep it vague like that, of course people will agree. But the answer is almost meaningless: Do people want entitlements to change to be more generous, or do they want the sort of private account or voucher-based systems Paul Ryan has proposed? This poll doesn't tell us.

The unions' poll, meanwhile, didn't ask about deficits in isolation -- it counterposed deficit reduction with "creating jobs" and gave people a binary choice between the two. Again, given this choice, it's almost a given that respondents will pick "job creation" as their preferred priority, and indeed, 67 percent did. But how do people want this job creation to be accomplished? Chances are if you replaced that phrase with "government spending," which is what's really meant by the question, you'd get a different answer, and if you dug down into specifics on how to create jobs, you'd likely get far less unanimity.

It's clear what both these groups are trying to do. Third Way wants politicians to think even Democrats want to rein in entitlement spending, when that's pretty clearly not the case. The unions want politicians to think voters don't care about deficits, when that's also pretty clearly not the case.

So what do the American people really want out of a deal to resolve the fiscal cliff? It's best to turn to a poll that doesn't come from an interest group for the answer. National Journal's Congressional Connection polling series, conducted by Princeton Survey Research, has asked a number of detailed questions on fiscal issues and the budget in recent months. Here's what it found:

* Do voters want to reduce the deficit? Yes, but they care more about jobs and education. Three quarters call reducing the deficit "very important," but an even larger majority, 86 percent, say addressing the job situation is, and 76 percent say the same about improving public education.

* Do voters want entitlement cuts? Nope. A slim majority, 51 percent, say keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits untouched is more important than reducing the deficit (34 percent). A plurality, 36 percent, say the idea that Medicare and Social Security could be cut is their biggest worry about any deficit deal; raising their taxes was the concern of 24 percent. A majority also said raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 should not be part of the deal, and a plurality, 49 percent, didn't want Medicare and Medicaid spending to be limited. Voters also don't want to see a freeze on domestic nondefense spending on things like education, parks, and housing, by a 57-35 margin.

There's one thing voters clearly do want: Raising taxes on the wealthy. All of these polls -- the Third Way survey, the unions' poll, the National Journal questionnaire -- found majority support for raising taxes on incomes over $250,000, a conclusion also found in the presidential exit poll and plenty of other surveys. The politicians seem to have absorbed this: Democrats, led by Obama, have made upper-income tax hikes their central demand, and Republicans, while resisting a top-bracket rate hike, are talking about other ways to increase taxes, such as limiting deductions and closing loopholes.

Voters also seem enthusiastic about cuts to defense spending, though remarkably few pollsters ask this question. A Gallup poll in February found a plurality, 41 percent, think the federal government spends too much on national defense and the military; 32 percent said defense spending was about right, while just 24 percent said it was too little -- a marked contrast to both parties' slavish devotion to maintaining or increasing military budgets. A detailed survey commissioned by the Center for Public Integrity in May dug into voters' views on this topic and found even broader agreement for a wide variety of cuts to the Pentagon.

There's one more point of public consensus: People want lawmakers to do something. In the National Journal survey, 63 percent wanted lawmakers to compromise, and a plurality, 45 percent, thought there was still time to get a deal done by the end of the year (40 percent were OK with deferring a deal until next year). If something doesn't get done, they'll blame congressional Republicans (18 percent) slightly more than the president (10 percent) or congressional Democrats (8 percent), but most (61 percent) say they'll blame all parties equally.

In short: The people want a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. They want it to combine tax increases and spending cuts. But the devil, as ever, is in the details.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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