On yesterday's Wall Street Journal editorial page, columnist Dan Henninger wrote: “Here’s your bumper sticker for the 2010 elections: It’s the Spending, Stupid."
"I’m convinced," he explained, "that beneath all the economic turbulence in the land is anxiety that’s been building for years as public spending has continued to grow. What was a chronic ‘concern’ has exploded this year into a broad public movement – in Washington, California, New York, New Jersey and indeed across Europe."
So, Americans are unhappy about spending. Fine. But, while urging next year’s incoming Republican congressional “rookies” to do “something identifiably real to stop the spending balloon,” he avoids the essential question that begs a real-world response: what, exactly, should they do?
This is no small matter, as Henninger’s Journal colleague, David Wessel, explained in his own column yesterday. For when you dig beyond the broad public desire to “stop the spending balloon” and explore spending at the programmatic level, you find, as Wessel did, that just as many Americans want more government as want less of it.
Asked, in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which of the following statements better reflects their views: "Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people" or "Government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals," 47 percent of respondents chose the first statement and an equal 47 percent chose the second.
Also in that poll, Wessel tells us, 45 percent of Americans said they’d be comfortable or enthusiastic about a congressional candidate who wanted to repeal health reform, while an almost equal 42 percent said they would not.
And in a recent Allstate/National Journal poll, 39 percent of Americans said they wanted government to cut taxes, cut spending, and cut regulation, even if that meant a bigger deficit; 33 percent said they wanted government to spend more on infrastructure, education, research and so on, even if that meant a bigger deficit; and 20 percent said they wanted government to reduce the deficit even if that meant higher taxes and cuts to programs like Medicare and education.
Therein lies not just the problem with Henninger’s analysis, but the dilemma with which any elected official must grapple. For while Americans are relatively united on the issue of cutting spending in a conceptual sense, they are noticeably split over how to address the particulars of public benefits and services.
That explains why most elected officials of recent vintage have tried to have it both ways – vowing to cut spending in general while choosing not to do much cutting when it comes to big, popular programs. That’s why, for instance, the same congressional Republicans who persistently complain about out-of-control spending on “entitlements” – another conceptual term – attacked the Democrats’ health reform legislation because, among other things, it cut funds from Medicare, the popular entitlement program.
Henninger calls for less spending, in general. Wessel explores the incoherent impulses of today’s electorate when it comes to programs, in particular, and calls for elected officials to rise above the clatter, eschew political pandering on specific programs, and find ways to produce bipartisan compromises as they did in the 1980s with, for instance, tax reform and a plan to strengthen Social Security.
Politicians don’t only live in Henninger’s conceptual world. They also live in Wessel’s very real one, with real programs with real constituencies. When it comes to spending, the devil’s in the details. Mr. Henninger, meet Mr. Wessel.
Visit the Capital Exchange home page here.
Lawrence J. Haas is former Communications Director to Vice President Gore and, before that, to the White House Office of Management and Budget. He's now a public affairs consultant who writes widely about foreign and domestic affairs, including fiscal policy.