Yet this view of a divided electorate, while true in important respects, is incomplete. People don't only disagree with each other over what to do about the federal deficit; they also frequently seem to disagree with themselves.
Too many Americans favor the equivalent of a free budgetary lunch, in which politicians somehow cut spending overall without actually trimming spending in any single program of significance.
A new Pew Research poll highlights this political incoherence. The pollsters asked people if they wanted to increase or decrease spending on 19 categories of programs (education, energy, agriculture, military defense, etc.), or keep spending the same. The result: "For 18 of 19 programs tested, majorities want either to increase spending or maintain it at current levels."
More significantly, in 16 of the 19 categories, those wanting to boost spending outnumbered those wanting to cut it and in some cases such as education and Social Security, for example, boost it by huge amounts.
So the Democratic view of the deficit is more popular, right?
Not so fast. A poll released one day earlier by Pew Research and USA Today looked at attitudes toward the sequester itself. And while it found that fully 76 percent of Americans want both spending cuts and tax increases as "part of the next step in tackling the federal budget deficit ... an equally large proportion believes that the greater share should come from spending cuts."
Indeed, "overall, 73 percent say efforts by the president and Congress to reduce the deficit should be only or mostly focused on spending cuts while just 19 percent say the focus should be only or mostly on tax increases."
Needless to say, these two polls and remember, by the same pollster reflect contradictory views on federal spending, and perhaps also resounding ignorance of budgetary reality. They also present a leadership challenge to politicians. That's because almost any realistic attempt to balance the budget involving meaningful spending cuts, reform of entitlements and additional tax revenue will apparently disappoint a majority of Americans who dwell in a budgetary fantasy land.
That's unfortunate. Even so, it doesn't absolve Congress from its duty to solve this nation's fiscal problems. Members of Congress were elected to lead, to make tough decisions.
Now, it seems, they have their chance.
The Denver Post, March 3