One of the more frustrating pundit habits is to argue that something is true exclusively because it appears that most people believe it is true. "More than 50 percent of the country agrees with me!" is an easy way to insulate yourself from a rebuttal without actually making a defense.
Take, for example, this column from U.S. News & World Report editor Mort Zuckerman. President Obama is shepherding the"most fiscally irresponsible government in U.S. history," he concludes. What kind of numbers back up a statement like that? Poll numbers.
What does it mean to be fiscally responsible during a steep economic downturn, and why has this Congress been worse at that than any other Congress before it? Zuckerman doesn't elaborate. Instead, the first half of the article paints the picture of an electorate that is scared to death of the debt. Thirty-eight percent this and 48 percent that. Polls are important, theoretically, because they anticipate voting trends. But a poll isn't evidence that you're right. It's evidence that many non-experts agree with you.
That's why following poll numbers on deficit policy a recipe for being very confused. Americans care about reducing the deficit. Really, they care. They just don't want to raise taxes or cut spending in a way that would actually accomplish the thing they really care about. Even when you drill down on more popular "soak the rich" strategies, you get this: 66 percent of America wants to raise taxes on the top two percent, while 50 percent of America also finds any such tax increase "unacceptable."