Washington has spent much of this year flipping out over the long-term deficit. Republicans and Democrats have differing ideas for what to do about it, but they're pretty much agreed that our national debt is a gathering menace that threatens to destroy America. Hence, the blizzard of "bold" plans – from Bowles-Simpson to Ryan to Obama himself – to get the nation back in the black. No doubt, the long-term debt is a serious problem; we can't keep spending money we don't have. But it's not the only problem the nation faces, writes Ruy Teixiera in the New Republic. Nor, with unemployment hovering around 9 percent and the economic recovery showing signs of stalling – is it even the most urgent.
So what's up with Washington's "monomaniacal focus on the deficit," as Teixeira puts it? Is it that voters are suddenly super-anxious about the nation's account balance? No. They're slightly more concerned than in the past, but polls say they're much more worried about jobs and the economy. Then maybe voters think cutting the deficit is a great way to produce jobs? Not so much. Per the latest polls, most think it will hurt the economy in the short term. So what's going on?
Teixeira guesses that "officials don’t so much seek to know public opinion in order to follow it, but rather so they can manipulate it to support their agenda and minimize any electoral damage that might result." In other words, Republicans want to cut the deficit, period – not so much because that's good economics as because it's a great way to shrink government. And if that means the economy doesn't produce enough jobs? Hey, voters will blame Obama.
And why do Democrats play along? As many have pointed out, at least since Bill Clinton a lot of Democrats are closer to the Republicans on economics than most people assume, so don't go thinking jobs are necessarily Democrats' No. 1 priority, because they're not. Plus, says Teixeira, it's likely that, "lacking any clear economic philosophy of their own, many Democrats are easily swayed by elite media pressure and bogus economic arguments that rely on "common sense" notions—debt is bad …." Not a smart strategy:
"Democrats may also hope that, by raising the salience of the debt issue, they will earn points with the public for taking a “responsible” approach. It’s possible, of course, that this strategy will work. But given the well-known tendency of voters to focus most on concrete economic performance indicators like jobs, history suggests it will not. In the end, many in Congress may regret—and the country may too—that they didn’t do more of what politicians are assumed to do but frequently don’t: pander to public opinion."
Source: What explains the current deficit mania in Washington? [The New Republic]