In his January 2008 inaugural address, President Barack Obama observed that "[o]ur economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age." Almost four years later, as our country stands at the ledge of a fiscal cliff created in part by that continued failure to make difficult decisions, two new polls reveal that Americans are no more prepared to make hard choices today than they were when President Obama took the oath of office.
The two polls — one from McClatchy, the other from the The Christian Science Monitor — show that while Americans want the country to go down a more sustainable fiscal path, majorities oppose every meaningful proposition to cut the deficit. Every proposition, that is, except taxing the rich.
The numbers relating to Medicare in particular tell a startling tale of a nation that demands policy outcomes but is utterly unprepared to make the sacrifices necessary to reach them. Medicare and other entitlement programs account for roughly two-thirds of all federal spending. Any remotely serious approach to solving the country's budget problems must include serious and painful cuts to Medicare. But when asked whether spending on Medicare should be cut, an astonishing 74 percent of respondents to the McClatchy poll said they opposed any cuts. Similarly, The Christian Science Monitor found that only 19 percent of respondents said they would support cuts to Medicare (making it the least popular of all 12 policy options survey-takers were presented with).
Our leaders read these polls. They know what will happen if they defy the popular will. The electorate no longer rewards politicians who act like adults and play nice with the other side, who make conscientious stands and ask the country to take its medicine. Americans — particularly partisans on each end of the political spectrum — are very clear about what they want, even when it doesn't make much sense in practical terms. And if lawmakers go against them, well, voters are eager to throw the bums out.
Recent history tells the tale. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was a few hanging chads away from being Al Gore's vice president, was defeated in a Democratic primary in 2006 for having the audacity to support the Iraq surge (he managed to win the general election as an independent, and will be retiring at the end of 2013). The late Arlen Specter, the former Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, broke ranks to vote for TARP I, virtually assuring that Pat Toomey would trounce him in the 2010 GOP primary. (Specter switched parties, and lost in the Democratic primary.) Richard Lugar, who has been in the Senate longer than I have been alive, lost a primary to an infamous fellow named Richard Mourdock because he was seen as too close with President Obama. Finally, and perhaps most notably, the well-respected and very conservative Robert Bennett of Utah literally failed to even make it into the Utah GOP primary (he finished 3rd in the first round of voting). Bennett's great sin? Voting for a bank bailout that arguably saved the entire global financial system, and co-sponsoring a bill to mandate health insurance coverage.
One could argue that this is just democracy in action. But in a nation transfixed by the founding generation, it must be observed that our founding fathers quite consciously did not create a democracy, but rather a republic. Alexander Hamilton explained why:
"It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity."
The 17th Amendment, the advent of primaries, and the dominance of the 24-hour news cycle have combined to make our nation more democratic than ever. We run leaders who dare to act responsibly out of town when they defy us. We are left with leaders who do exactly what we tell them to. That means that if this country is going to solve its very real and very big problems, we ordinary Americans actually have to want our leaders to solve them. To address America's fiscal crisis, every single American — rich, poor, young, and old — will have to have to pay more taxes and receive less benefits from the government. Are we ready for that responsibility? Or will we continue to put off the hard choices until they stop being choices at all?
Jeb Golinkin is a 3L at the University of Texas School of Law. From 2008-2011, he served as an editor and reporter for FrumForum. Follow Jeb on Twitter: @JGolinkin.