Public opinion polling is something between a dark art and a Rorschach test. Sometimes it can reveal significant and real trends. But too often the questions are leading, offer false choices or ask respondents to make enormous statements while withholding information or context. Consider that disclosure for this and all public polling analysis.
This New York Times poll comparing the Tea Party movement to the general public is timed for Tax Day, but the main lessons have little to do with taxes. They have to do with spending, and how Americans -- all of us -- understand and misunderstand spending. Here are three takeaways from the poll.
1. The Tea Partiers don't appear to be as uniformly anti-tax as I painted them yesterday. Despite the "Taxed Enough Already" signs and the many vague and often contradictory allusions to their gratuitous tax burden, the poll suggests that half of Tea Party supporters thinks that their taxes are fair. Their insistence on reform falls mostly on the spending side: they're against the stimulus, against the bailouts, against more packages aimed at job creation. Ninety-two percent call for a smaller government with fewer services.
2. The whole country (but the Tea Party, in particular) struggles and will increasingly struggle to reconcile our desire for small government with our affection for entitlement programs. Three-fourths of the country and 62% of Tea Partiers think that Medicare and Social Security are "worth the costs." In 2010, those programs will account for about 40% of government spending. Defense is 20%. Almost another 10% percent is mandatory interest on the debt. You tag 70% of the budget as untouchable and suddenly the prospect of delivering a smaller government becomes a lot more challenging.