The Magazine

Permanent Gridlock

The showdowns on spending won’t end until the voters make up their minds.

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By JAY COST
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Nowhere is this confusion more evident than in the 2012 exit polls. President Obama claims a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy to reduce the deficit. Does the evidence back up that claim? Perhaps​—​it just depends on what evidence you are looking at. Some 60 percent of voters said that tax rates should either be “increased for all” or “increased for $250K+.” That seems to support the president’s position, but those same respondents gave a contradictory answer to a related question. The exit pollsters also asked if taxes should be raised “to help cut the deficit.” Just 33 percent said yes and 63 percent said no.

One potential explanation for this contradiction is that voters want taxes raised not for deficit reduction but for more spending. Yet just 43 percent of respondents stated that the “government should do more,” while some 51 percent said the government is doing too much. Public opinion on this issue is, in a word, incoherent. As a whole, the voters did not give a clear indication of what they want done with taxes, spending, and the deficit.

Why does the public seem so ill-prepared to answer basic questions about the size and scope of government? The answer might simply be: They never really had to before now. For generations, conservatives have warned about a government that was too intrusive and a danger to private initiative; liberals have been bemoaning a government that has not done enough to secure social justice. Yet the public has never had to make a hard choice because of economic growth. In the latter half of the 20th century, growth in real gross domestic product averaged 3.6 percent per year. This enabled us to have our cake and eat it, too: The government could grow every year, and do more to ensure equity between citizens, without intruding on the private sector via higher tax rates. Everybody could win, in some sense.

Since 2000, growth has been roughly half that, clocking in at 1.8 percent per year, which is about where most experts believe 2012 will end up. This stagnation has put unprecedented pressure on Washington. The “have your cake and eat it, too” combination of big spending and low taxes has generated an annual budget deficit that now tops 10 percent of gross domestic product, unprecedented in peacetime and unsustainable over the long haul.

This is a reality that appears not to have sunk in on the public. Polling data indicate that the people simply do not understand the parlous state of public finances​—​hence the refusal to brook tax hikes to deal with the deficit, or spending cuts in entitlements, the biggest drivers of the nation’s overdrawn account. Little wonder that, after two years of gridlock between two sides that cannot find common ground, the public obstinately refused to break the tie in 2012. 

So long as the public continues to send mixed signals, and indeed appears not to fathom the depth of the problem, the two sides will not come to some kind of long-term agreement. Why should they? Better to kick the can down the road until the next election, in the hope that your side can gain an edge.

That points to a grim near-term future for American politics and policy. The fiscal cliff will not be the last showdown between conservatives and liberals on taxes and spending. Given that both factions occupy critical strongholds in the government​—​the GOP controls the House and a Democrat holds the veto pen​—​we should expect more of the same: gridlock, recriminations, and periodic crises that necessitate last-minute “grand bargains” that, on closer inspection, are not so grand. This state of affairs will continue until the American people finally decide which side’s approach they favor in dealing with the deficit.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.


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