Are Voters Ready to Make the Tough Fiscal Choices?

Isabel V. Sawhill

Conventional wisdom holds that the public is in denial about the need to raise taxes and reduce government benefits in order to restore fiscal sanity. Polls support the conventional wisdom. They show that the public is overwhelmingly in favor of protecting Social Security and Medicare benefits while also avoiding higher taxes. The problem is that no one is educating the public about our fiscal future and the steps that are needed to put us on a more sustainable path. If candidates for public office had the courage to educate the public, they might find voters more willing to accept the tough choices.

On September 15, I spent the day in Ohio at a town hall meeting with a reasonably representative group of registered voters sponsored by former Comptroller General David Walker’s Comeback America Initiative.  The experience was eye-opening. These voters were appalled by the lack of action in Washington, eager to understand the fiscal facts and the choices, and willing to support the painful measures that will eventually be needed. After a short presentation by David Walker and myself on the facts and the kinds of policy options being widely discussed, they voted electronically on deficit-reducing measures such as putting Medicare and Medicaid on a predictable budget, raising the retirement age for Social Security, more income-relating of premiums for these health and retirements programs, raising revenues by broadening the tax base and bumping up the wage cap on the Social Security payroll tax, and cutting defense spending.

To be sure, it’s easier to support such measures in a paper (or electronic) exercise than when you actually go to the polls. Moreover, the details of each option and how it is presented matter. Although we were reasonably specific about the kinds of reforms we asked them to vote on, there wasn’t time to cover every issue. Still, there’s no question in my mind that educating these voters on the problem and the rationale for various solutions makes a huge difference.

Here are some of the results. Eighty-seven percent thought that the right way to address the debt was through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases. (This compared to 13 percent who wanted to only cut spending and 1 percent who wanted only to raise taxes.) Seventy-nine percent favored eliminating an open-ended entitlement to health care and instead putting Medicare and Medicaid on a fixed and predictable budget that would grow more slowly than in the past. Seventy-six percent favored gradually raising the retirement age for Social Security along with raising the taxable wage base and reducing the growth of benefits for the more affluent. Reforms to the way the Pentagon does business were also widely supported.

There’s a lot of talk about the need for leadership these days but little understanding about what leadership entails.  Above all, it means educating the public. If candidates for national office were to tell the voters what we told them in Ohio, conventional wisdom says they would lose. But maybe, just maybe, the public is ready to hear the truth.